Men have the power, but women have the brains
|Lyric Opera of Chicago presents|
Review by John Olson
Arguably the most accessible and popular of operas in the classical repertoire, Carmen has been successfully adapted for the even more popular genre of musical theatre (Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones). Perhaps to amp up the entertainment value of this production, Lyric Opera has brought in Broadway showman Rob Ashford, director and choreographer of the most recent revivals of How to Succeed…. and Promises, Promises as well as the telecasts The Sound of Music Live and Peter Pan Live. Purists needn’t worry – the music is still king here, and the singers are all from the opera world. Ashford has added some sexy and stunning dances to the opera and brought in designers from the Broadway scene to give added flash to the story of the gypsy Carmen who seduces and then discards a straight-arrow soldier.
Ashford’s 12-person dance corps has several big moments, mostly having to do with bullfighting. This staging opens with a male dancer (Judson Emery), shirtless and wearing a bull headdress, dueling with a toreador (one of many colorfully dressed in Julie Weiss’s costumes). The bull and toreador are symbols that reappear throughout the opera. The bull represents the enticing but dangerous Carmen, ultimately doomed but putting up quite a show and a fight on the way down. The toreador is perhaps her soldier-lover Don Jose, or perhaps society in general. Carmen’s famous Act One “Habanera” aria is accompanied by dancers playing her co-workers at a cigarette factory, and Act Four, set just outside a bullfight, features a ballet danced by toreadors who emerge from under the huge skirts of some colorfully-garbed senoritas.
The simple but whimsical sets are designed by Broadway’s David Rockwell (Hairspray, Kinky Boots and his Tony award-winning She Loves Me), who together with Weiss’s costumes updates the action from mid-19th Century to 1936-37, during the Spanish Civil War (the text is not changed). The action is bathed in shades of red, suggesting the blood of the bulls (and ultimately Carmen?), by lighting designer Donald Holder (Lincoln Center Theatre’s South Pacific, Disney’s The Lion King and many others).
But make no mistake, this is no corruption of traditional opera, just a few enhancements. The production is a huge one, including the large Lyric chorus and the Chicago Children’s Choir on stage in addition to the 11 principals and 12 dancers. Standouts among the principals include Joseph Calleja as Don José (Brandon Jovanovich will assume the role as of March 16,), who convincingly plays the sensitive soldier who falls for Carmen and is emotionally destroyed by her ultimate rejection. Calleja’s “Flower Song” brought down the house. Also impressive is Eleonora Buratto as Micaëla, the sweet young girl who remains loyal to Don José in spite of his abandoning her to take up with Carmen. Burrato, whose “Je dis que rien" is another highlight of the production, rather outshines Ekaterina Gubanova, the production’s Carmen through March 6 (Anita Rachvelishvili takes over from March 16-25). Gubanova is fine, though with a less powerful voice than the other principals. And, while she effectively plays Carmen as conniving and strong, she isn’t as convincing as a seductress.
Secondary performers are all strong, with Christian Van Horn a particular delight as the egotistical matador Escamillo. Comic relief is also provided by Takaoki Onishi as Corporal Morales, Emmett O’Hanlon and Mingjie Lei as the smugglers (in this updating, rebels), Dancaire and Remendado; and Lindsay Metzger and Diana Newman as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès. While Ashford’s Carmen shows honest empathy for the pain of Don José and Micaëla, the overall tone is wry. It’s a smart satire of masculinity as much as anything – taking shots at the pomposity of toreador Escamillo and Zuniga, the lieutenant who believes he will have Carmen – as well as the vulnerability of the insecure Don José. The men ultimately overpower the women, due to societal structures of the times (of most times, actually), but as portrayed here, the men make the wrong choices most of the time.
Georges Bizet’s melodic and wind-heavy score is given a superb orchestral reading by Lyric’s orchestra, conducted on opening night by Harry Bicket (Ainars Rubikis will assume the baton beginning March 16).
Carmen continues through February 25th at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map). Tickets are $20-$349, and are available by phone (312-827-5600) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LyricOpera.org. (Running time: 3 hours, includes a 30-minute intermission)
Ekaterina Gubanova (Carmen, through March 6), Anita Rachvelishvili (Carmen, March 16-25), Joseph Calleja (Don Jose through March 6), Brandon Jovanovich (Don Jose, through March 25), Takaoki Onishi (Morales), Eleonora Buratto (Micaela), Bradley Smoak (Zuniga), Diana Newman (Frasquita), Lindsay Metzger (Mercedes), Christian Van Horn (Escamillo), Alec Carlson (Lilla Pastia), Emmett O’Hanlon (Dancaire), Mingjie Lei (Remendado), Shannon Alvis, Judson Emery, Alejandro Fonseca, Ashley Elizabeth Hale, Shanna Heverly, Marissa Lynn Horton, Jeffrey B. Hover, Jr., Jessica Wolfram Raun, Todd Rhoades, Abigail Simon, Malachi Squires, J.P. Tenuta (dancers)
behind the scenes
Rob Ashford (stage director, choreographer), Harry Bicket (conductor, through March 6), Ainars Rubikis (conductor, March 16-25), David Rockwell (set design), Julie Weiss (original costume design), Donald Holder (lighting design), Michael Black (chorus master), Josephine Lee (children’s chorus master), Sarah Hatten (wig and makeup design), Louisa Muller (associate director), Sarah O’Gleby (associate choreographer), Ashley Elizabeth Hale (ballet mistress), Jodi Gage (assistant director), Rachel A. Tobias (stage manager), Steven Mosteller (stage band conductor), Keun-A Lee, Jead Mosby (musical preparation), Valerie Maze (ballet accompanist), Chick Coyl (fight director), Scott F. Heumann, Paul Hopper, Roger Pines (projected English titles).