By Ian Rigg
When a wounded animal strikes, it is unhinged, unbound and unleashed upon unwitting fools in its thrall. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s phenomenal production of Carmen stands in the shadow of the bull.
In a reinterpretation of Bizet’s seminal classic, the sordid tale is set a century later in 1936 Seville, against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. In a marriage of music and message, Director Rob Ashford utilizes a divine dancer with a macabre bull’s head as a metaphor for love, death and violence, which appear to be inextricably linked. In a sensational spectacle, the fires of fascism and love burn as one, and audiences witness the ashes.
The peerless production team has lit the flame. Set Designer David Rockwell has created towering and terrific pieces that temper verisimilitude with impressionism. Each piece cleverly rotates to serve another purpose. As practical as it is provocative, it appears to be no mistake that the back of the stage is adorned by a giant wall.
Donald Holder’s lighting is acclaimed for good reason. He cleverly manages to isolate characters in the background in a desaturated haze while letting the leads’ anguish occupy the light. The lights also give a great sense of place and time of day, be it a shady street in Seville, a murky inn, a mountainside, or a bullfight at high noon. Chuck Coyl’s fight choreography feels eminently real. Sarah Hatten (wigmaster and makeup designer) adds to that reality, bringing curly locks and fierce makeup to the fray.
The opera is, of course, a feat of musical magnificence. Harry Bicket conducts an outstanding orchestra. Chorus Master Michael Black coaxes greatness. And as seems to be perpetually the case, the Lyric Opera of Chicago boasts an excellent ensemble.
Bradley Smoak and Takaoki Onishi play Zuniga and Moralés, and Emmett O’Hanlon and Mingjie Lei portray Dancaire and Remendado. They all excel as soldiers in opposite sides of the war.
Diana Newman and Lindsay Metzger are riotous as Frasquita and Mecédés. Their humor is met with an equal care and concern for Carmen.
The role of toreador Escamillo is sung with debonair delight by Christian Van Horn, with the perfect blend of boastful comedy and prideful tenderness. The rich bass-baritone carries a booming levity.
Eleonora Buratio makes a marvelous Micaela, with an innocent air giving way to heartbreak and a resolute determination to deliver one last promise to the man she once loved. Her aria in Act III earned her several cries of “bravissima” on opening night.
Joseph Calleja astounds as Don José. Portraying quite an ambivalent character, he succeeds in balancing a wrathful petulance with a profound torment. He hit high G as if it were effortless.
Ekaterina Gubanova is titanic in the titular role. Her voice is an exquisite mezzo-soprano colored by nihilistic mirth. Her Habanera is tremendous, tempting fools towards the taboo for her own salvation. She truly embodies the character, carrying the weight of her fate with a furious courage.
At the center of it all is director Rob Ashford. The unconventional conception of Carmen is its triumph. The time jump makes for a truly intriguing reinterpretation. Surely influenced by the turn of the world outside the opera house, Lyric’s Carmen depicts a world in the thrall of burgeoning fascism. In an intriguing twist, the smugglers are now recast and reframed as rebels, while Don José is actively aiding and abetting autocracy. Carmen’s free spirit and furious joie de vivre is no longer just self-preservation: it’s revolutionary.
Meanwhile, her lover Don José is under the thumb of not only society’s expectations and his own mind’s maladies, but under the jackboot of Francisco Franco. He feels compelled to do ‘right’, not what is right. He is neither pure, nor, wise, nor good (and he certainly isn’t doing the best he knows). He is infected by the regime’s rage, internalizes its violence, and comes to inflict it on all of those around him, no matter how beloved he claims them to be.
Ashford brilliantly illustrates this through dance. The choreography is evocative, erotic, entrancing, a pervading miasma of the macabre. Intensely flowing and poetically masculine, it is reminiscent of thorned roses swaying in a gale, painting a portrait of diabolical desire.
The opera’s final image conjures Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, depicting the annihilation of Andalusia.
While the two works of art share a heritage of agony as high art, destiny is not the source of either malice. Fate is not the governing force here. Patriarchy is. After the first witness of the bull ballet, the next tableau is of a detachment of soldiers leering, jeering, and accosting Micaela. Often when there is talk of “love” (or Don Jose’s twisted rendition of it) the bull returns to the stage as a spectre of violence against women. This malevolence will gore anyone in its path.
Bizet’s “Habanera” ponders that “Love is a wild bird that cannot be imprisoned.” Lyric Opera of Chicago’s consummate Carmen posits instead, that “love” is a wild bull that cannot be slain.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Carmen” through March 25 at Lyric’s Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.