REVIEW: Carmen (Lyric Opera)

   

Exquisite performances make a restless ‘Carmen’ shine

 

Katharine Goeldner as Carmen - Lyric Opera - Photo by Dan Rest

   
Lyric Opera presents  
   
Carmen
   
Composed by Georges Bizet
Directed by
Henry Silverstien
Music directed by
Alain Altinoglu
at
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)
through March 27   |  
tickets: $38-$227   |   more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Even though Georges Bizet’s Carmen spawned some of the most recognizable melodies in classical music, it was a complete flop when it premiered in 1875, as critics pronounced it immoral even before it opened. Bizet died soon afterwards, never knowing his enduring popularity. Although considered an “opera comique,” the sensual and tragic love story pretty much murdered the style. The initial run almost bankrupted Paris’ Opera Comique, but Carmen’s influence went much further. The commercially viable, family friendly, yet artistically vapid form of the opera comique was made obsolete by Bizet’s genre-bending themes.

Katharine Goeldner and Yonghoon Lee - Act III of Carmen, Lyric Opera - photo by Dan Rest A straightforward, traditional production, Lyric Opera’s Carmen is simple (or at least as simple as the Lyric gets) and deeply passionate. The focus is on the layered characters of the piece, none of whom is solidly villain or hero—they’re all just human beings. The story, loosely based on a novella by Prosper Merimee, eschews melodrama for moral complexity. Under the levelheaded direction of Henry Silverstein, this story of love—requited and otherwise—remains explosive. Even after nearly four hours of arias, I found myself with plenty to mull over on the way home.

In a Seville filled with soldiers, romance, and pretty girls, Carmen holds the record for most heads turned. She’s a poor gypsy girl, but rich in passion and independence, loving whomever she pleases. Don Jose, a lowly corporal, is smitten by her charms, and Carmen fancies the soldier, too. He even goes to jail for two months, charged with abetting her escape when she is arrested for some local trouble. After his stint in prison, Don Jose gets a little clingy. His attempts to control her does not sit well with the fiery gypsy, who dumps the obsessed lover. Like most stories that start off like this, you can probably guess the ending—homicide, followed by instant regret. In operas, domestic disputes always end bloodier than in reality.

The success or failure of this show depends on the quality of the mezzo-soprano playing Carmen. Due to some medical issues, Katharine Goeldner took over for Kate Aldrich for all of the October dates. I can’t attest to how Aldrich would have performed the role, but Goeldner was delightful. As Bizet’s famous flirt, she’s vivacious and quick. I understand Don Jose’s desire to lock that down. While usually exuding mounds of charm, Goeldner can also key into Carmen’s vicious and irrational side. She has a proto-feminist vision of gender equality, awesome—but she also harbors some wacky, romantic notions, like forcing Jose to desert the army to be with her. Goeldner makes all these layers clear. Her singing was exquisite, especially her “Habanera,” where she coquettishly discloses her thesis on free love (with a wink).

Katharine Goeldner, Kyle Ketelsen in Act III - Lyric Opera Carmen - photo by Dan Rest

Katharine Goeldner and Yonghoon Lee, final scene of Bizet Carmen, Lyric Opera - photo by Dan Rest Katharine Goeldner, Yonghoon Lee - Lyric Opera Carmen - photo by Dan Rest Katharine Goeldner, Yonghoon Lee, Lyric Opera - Carmen - photo by Dan Rest
Kyle Ketelsen as Escamilo, Lyric Opera Carmen - photo Dan Rest Yonghoon Lee as Don Jose in Carmen - Lyric Opera - photo by Dan Rest

Flown in from South Korea, Yonghoon Lee nuances his portrayal of Don Jose with plenty of lovelorn stares and conflicted frowns. He doesn’t match the intense passion of Goeldner in his acting performance, but he still presents a hefty challenge. He also struggles with externalizing Jose’s rage well; sometimes the character’s jealousy comes off as awkward, or just plain silly.

Penned by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, the libretto could be better shaped. There are some throwbacks to the opera comique style that are unnecessary, especially in the first act. For example, there is a long number where a pack of children rush on stage and sing about imitating the army. Still can’t figure out a point to that one, besides “who doesn’t love to see kids on stage?”

The final five minutes are breathtaking, a perfect, wretched harmony of sound, image, and content. Out of sight, the chorus faintly sings the praises of a bullfighter, interspersed by the final encounter between Carmen and Don Jose, basked in blood-red light and showered with rose petals. It’s a transcendent moment, one that makes the previous three acts worthwhile.

   
   
Review: ★★★½
   
   

Lyric Opera - Scene from Act I of Carmen - Photo by Dan Rest

 Cast and Creative Team

     

Goeldner2

Carmen
Katharine Goeldner
October

Krasteva Carmen ST

Carmen
Nadia Krasteva*
March

Lee Carmen ST

Don José
Yonghoon Lee*
October

     

Jovanovich Carmen ST

Don José
Brandon Jovanovich
March

Carmen - Elaine Alvarez

Micaëla
Elaine Alvarez
October

Carmen - Nicole Cabell

Micaëla
Nicole Cabell
March

     

Carmen - Kyle Ketelsen

Escamillo
Kyle Ketelsen

Craig Irvin

Zuniga
Craig Irvin

Jennifer Jakob

Frasquita
Jennifer Jakob

     

Emily Fons

Mercédès
Emily Fons*

Paul Scholten

Dancaïre
Paul Scholten*

Rene Barbera

Remendado
René Barbera

     

Paul La Rosa

Moralès
Paul La Rosa

Carmen - Alain Altinoglu

Conductor
Alain Altinoglu*

Harry Silverstein

Stage Director
Harry Silverstein

     
 

Chicago Children’s Chorus
Josephine Lee — Artistic Director

Set Designer
Robin Don

Costume Designer
Robert Perdziola

Lighting Designer
Jason Brown

Chorus Master
Donald Nally

Choreographer & Ballet Mistress
August Tye

 

*Lyric Opera debut

 
        
        

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