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

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REVIEW: Macbeth (Lyric Opera Chicago)

 

Verdi’s "Macbeth" is a Beautiful Tragedy

 

32 Act Four, MACBETH pic12507 c. Robert Kusel

   
Lyric Opera presents
   
Macbeth
  
Composed by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by
Francesco Maria Piave
Directed by
Barbara Gaines
Music directed by
Renato Palumbo
at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)   
through October 30  | 
tickets: $46-$207  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

If Shakespeare were a rock band, Macbeth would likely be the first track on the B-side of his greatest hits album. The classic tragedy about a power-hungry Scottish royal couple is certainly popular, but has never managed to reach the same lofty placement on the theatrical mantle occupied by Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

12 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2517 c. Dan RestI can understand why. For me, the title character always came across as a brutish ogre who stomps around in fits of testosterone-driven rage. You can almost picture him delivering his lines, as poetic as they may be, in a series of grunts. He’s like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Shakespearean world.

But Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth infuses the treasonous Scottish nobleman with a vulnerability I have never witnessed before. Perhaps it is because of the passionate singing, the low bellow delivered by performer Thomas Hampson, that allows you to really feel the emotions behind Macbeth’s words. Or perhaps it is that unique quality of opera wherein characters sing aloud their inner dialogue regardless of how many chorus members are on stage. Either way, this Macbeth may have a bold exterior, but there’s no mistaking that inside he hides a sensitive, insecure soul.

Although Hampson is billed as the star of the show, and he certainly delivers, the real standout is Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth. This woman is absolutely outstanding, with a stunning presence anytime she’s onstage. The amount of endurance and vocal strength required to sing her four arias must be a harrowing task. Yet she does it without ever dropping her energy. And although the production is in Italian (with English super-titles), Michael’s acting and vocal inflection are paired so perfectly that you know what she is saying even if you have absolutely no clue what she is saying.

Leonardo Capalbo, as Macbeth’s foe Macduff, executes an aria in the fourth act that outdoes all the other male cast members. Sung right after he discovers Macbeth has slain Macduff’s entire family, it is a powerful and tragic piece that is infused with real heart, mourning and rage.

Unfortunately, Štefan Kocán’s portrayal of Banquo. Kocan is not as impressive – he has a uniquely guttural voice that, while I appreciate its distinctiveness, serves as a distraction.

21 Nadja Michael, MACBETH DBR_3062 c. Dan Rest 18 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2666 c. Dan Rest
03 Nadja Michael, MACBETH DBR_2329 c. Dan Rest 29 Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_3218 c. Dan Rest 23 Thomas Hampson, Nadja Michael, MACBETH pic11478 c. Robert Kusel
15 Act One, MACBETH pic22287 c. Robert Kusel 09 Nadja Michael, Thomas Hampson, MACBETH DBR_2463 c. Dan Rest

As you would guess, the Lyric does not shy away from spectacle. There’s plenty of eye-catching scenes throughout, including the opening which features not one but three actors flying through the air on cables. The set itself is towering, resembling a giant metal spaceship. Although it’s impressive in its scale, the futuristic look of the sleek metal seems out of place for a play in which swords are considered advanced weaponry.

Macbeth may be a man’s world, but that doesn’t mean a woman can’t steal the show. And Michael certainly does as Lady Macbeth. At the same time, the intensity of Verdi’s musical orchestrations brings unparalleled clarity to this Elizabethan classic, which – for all its action – really is about emotional tragedy.

For a combination of stunning spectacle and masterful acting and singing, Macbeth is the perfect production for those wanting to witness opera for the first time.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

01 Act One, MACBETH pic04030 c. Robert Kusel

 

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