A COMPETENT‘ CARMEN’
Characters don’t always connect in Lyric’s straightforward and suitably grand revival
In a season that so far has included a world premiere and a rarity or two, Lyric Opera of Chicago has turned to the tried and true, offering a suitably grand if sometimes underwhelming revival of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.”
This story of a libertine Roma woman who puts her sense of freedom above all else shocked audiences during its 1875 debut at Paris’ Opéra- Comique, but it has gone on to be one of the most beloved and frequently performed of all operas.
The big draw here was the opportunity to see mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, one of the biggest stars to come out of the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric’s well-regarded apprentice program, in what has become a signature role for her.
Bridges has all the attributes necessary to portray this magnetic femme fatale — the allure, fiery stage presence and, most important, a stunning voice at its prime, with ample power and beautiful, earthy timbres in her lower register.
But somehow, her performance did not completely click Saturday evening. Telling was Bridges’ take on Carmen’s big Act 1 entrance, when she sings the famed habanera, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a Rebellious Bird).”
This should be a showy, sultry moment that sets the stage for all that is to come, but here it comes off as strangely restrained. Not helping matters is a dragging tempo, a problem that recurs a few more times later in the production and has to be laid at the feet of conductor Henrik Nánási.
Also not helping are some of the clunky connections between the characters. At the end of Act 1, for example, when Don José, a naive soldier devoted to his mother and childhood sweetheart, Micaëla, suddenly falls under Carmen’s spell, the transition is unconvincing. Tenor Charles Castronovo provides no set-up for it, nothing to signal his character’s dramatic change of heart.
The obsessive attraction between Don José and Carmen only becomes fully realized in Act 4, when she has left him for the flashy toreador, Escamillo, and the two have a final fatal encounter. In what is one of the highlights of the production, Bridges and Castronovo make the looming danger and love-hate toxicity palpable, with a searing intensity that is sometimes lacking elsewhere.
If Castronovo’s acting is limiting at times, he is a fine singer who capably handles the vocal demands of his role. Making his Lyric debut, baritone Andrei Kymach, the 2019 first prize winner at the BBC Cardiff Singer of World Competition, brings the necessary swagger to the role of Escamillo, but he could go even bigger in Act 2 with the famed “Toreador Song.”
One of the production’s standouts is soprano Golda Schultz, who is making her Lyric debut. Expect to see her again. With her fresh, dulcet voice, she poignantly conveys the innocence and steadfastness of Micaëla, drawing one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the night with her moving Act 3 aria, when she tries to pry Don José away from Carmen’s lure.
Also deserving note are two current members of the Ryan Opera Center who make the most of their small roles as Carmen’s friends: soprano Denis Vélez as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Katherine DeYoung as Mercédès.
Some “Carmen” productions try to examine the themes of this story through a socio-political lens, occasionally shifting the action to a different time and place in search of relevance, while others sexualize it in ways that can go too far.
Director Marie Lambert-Le Bihan took a more straightforward approach here, perhaps too straightforward, keeping the opera’s traditional 19th- century Spanish setting and focusing on just telling the story. While she did an effective job handling the bustling crowd scenes, it is hard not to wish, as suggested earlier, that the relationships between the main characters are not more fully defined.
She made use of handsome scenery and costumes that Lyric first featured during its 1999-2000 season and has brought back two other times since. Particularly striking are designer Robin Don’s dramatic sets for the third act — two upwardly jutting outcroppings of simulated rock with a large, vivid moon floating in a Vshaped opening between the two.