Carmen resounds once again at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and I was fortunate to take it all in last week. The opera is the final and most popular work of French composer Georges Bizet, and the most famous of all French operas. Bizet’s only other commonly-known work is the opera The Pearl Fishers, known primarily for its marvelous tenor-baritone duet Au fond du temple saint, the first version of which I think I ever heard is the famous one by tenor Jussi Björling and baritone Robert Merrill. Going back-to-back on Bizet, the Lyric has The Pearl Fishers on next season’s schedule.
Carmen of course tells the tragic story of the bold, seductive gypsy temptress who drives the beguiled Spanish soldier Don Jose into abandoning his duty and his gentle, innocent hometown sweetheart. Don Jose falls hard for Carmen despite her telling him, quite openly, that she is an unfaithful lover, and when she eventually leaves him for the dashing toreador Escamillo tragedy ensues. We see through vivid action and marvelous music how passion can be the road to ruin.
But despite all the wonderful music, so evocative of the Spanish setting, the realistic subject matter and the immorality of the main characters did not initially endear the opera to Parisian audiences. Bizet died suddenly at age 36 just a few months after Carmen’s premier in 1875, and we are left wondering if disappointment played a part. But Carmen has become one of the world’s favorites. In his extensive review of the art form titled The Opera, Joseph Wechsberg highlights Carmen as “a perfect opera.” It anticipates the Italian verismo form, which portrayed the everyday life, often brutish, of everyday people made of real flesh and blood. The enticing Act 1 habanera, Carmen’s lusty number that snares Don Jose, is perhaps the most recognizable scene in the opera; an indication of its popularity is its appearance in the movie Going My Way, where famed mezzo Rise Stevens gives a spirited performance at the Metropolitan while watched in the wings by Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley. Carmen’s rhythmic Act 2 seguidilla puts the finishing touches on Don Jose’s enchantment. I’m not sure, but I may have first heard the rousing Toreador song in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Then there is the great Act 2 tenor aria known as the Flower song for the bright red rose through which Carmen had selected Don Jose as her next lover, and Micaela’s Act 3 heart-felt pleading aria to Don Jose elicited enthusiastic applause at the performance I attended. The Prelude and the Interlude are wonderful, and popular, orchestral pieces, and were performed very well by the Lyric’s orchestra.
The mood was set from the start of this production with the vivid, lush blood-red curtain that caught everyone’s attention as we took our seats. The set though was a minimalist one, so common these days, but given that limitation it was surprisingly creative and effective. The relatively brief ballet numbers added zest to the performance; of particular note was the exceptionally-creative and visually-arresting dance opening in Act 4 in which flowing dresses were used as bull-fighting capes against a flaming red background – the performance elicited an approving gasp from the audience. The one disappointment, a small one, was the insertion of a distracting, writhing sideline ballet sequence between a shirtless man with a bull-head hat and a toreador in Act 4 while Don Jose and Carmen were having their final confrontation. Sometimes, even in opera, less is more.
The music is, of course, spectacular and we come to hear it all. Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili was in fine voice in her Lyric debut as Carmen, although I thought she could have acted more seductively in her movements. She has sung the role of Carmen at the Metropolitan, and The New Criterion music critic Jay Nordlinger wrote of her “big, glowing, smoky voice” in a 2012 performance. American tenor Brandon Jovanovich was strong as the callow and hapless Don Jose. He recently appeared last fall at the Lyric as Aeneas in Berlioz’s grand opera masterpiece The Trojans and did a great job in that role. Nordlinger caught Jovanovich a few years ago at the Met in Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and wrote of him: “I always knew him as a solid and appealing lyric singer [but] I had no idea he could pull off [this role]. Jovanovich was like a young Marlon Brandon. And he could sing: freshly and ruggedly, easily and commandingly.”
Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto was warmly received as the innocent Micaela, who contrasts sharply with the bold, alluring Carmen. Lyric Opera Ryan Center alums/members, Americans all, were strong in their roles: Christian Van Horn as the toreador Escamillo, Bradley Smoak as Don Jose’s superior officer Zuniga, and Diana Newman and Lindsay Metzger as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes. The Lyric chorus, including a talented group of kids, was terrific, as usual.
As is so unfortunately common in opera these days, the director changed the setting of the story in order to insert some sort of additional meaning or send some personal political message. Rather than write his own opera, he hijacked someone else’s. In this case, director Rob Ashford moved the story from early 19th Century traditional Spain to the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War – so instead of bright, traditional Spanish dress we get many performers plainly clothed in drab colors. But the greater offense was the director’s transmogrifying the men with whom Don Jose takes up after his desertion from smugglers to revolutionaries fighting for “liberty.” In an interview in the program, the director gives his reason – “The [Spanish Civil] war was often described as Fascism vs. Democracy – so it seemed a good parallel for the opera.” Unfortunately director Ashford is completely unfamiliar with the relevant history despite opining on it. In the Spanish Civil War, the “revolutionaries” were the traditionalists, commonly characterized as fascists, who were supported by Nazi Germany; that side was fighting communists and anarchists, loyal to the radical socialist government, who were supported by Communist Soviet Union. There were horrible atrocities on both sides, and neither side was remotely fighting for “democracy” or “liberty.” A modest proposal is that opera directors stick to operas as written and stay away from subjects about which they are unfamiliar. The Lyric has a dramaturg on staff, but it needs an historian as well.
I first saw Carmen at the Lyric in the early 1980s, with Placido Domingo as Don Jose. Quite coincidentally, just one week earlier also at the Lyric we attended a wonderful concert headlined by the now 76 year-old Domingo. I had forgotten the exact year of that earlier Carmen, but the concert’s program informed me that it was 1984. I’m fortunate to have seen Domingo at both ends of his remarkable career.
Carmen has permeated popular culture. There are some non-traditional appearances of the opera’s story and music that I particularly enjoy. In 1984 pop music star Malcolm McLaren released an album of pop adaptations of some well-known opera selections, and his riff on Carmen and the Habanera is quite entertaining. The creative Oscar Hammerstein II transposed Carmen’s story and lyrics to the early 1950s in the American South and Chicago in the film Carmen Jones, which featured an all-black cast with Dorothy Dandridge in the title role. Finally, the British duo Opera Babes sing a wonderful duet with words put to the Carmen Interlude, an enchanting piece of music; they have performed some of their entertaining repertory, including the piece from Carmen I would like to think, at the Los Angeles Opera House with none other than Placido Domingo.