CHICAGO—“Carmen” has a tragic ending as did the opera’s composer Georges Bizet (1838–1875). In his lifetime, he considered himself a failure, for when his last opera, “Carmen,” was mounted in Paris in 1875, it received poor support from the public. After all, Parisians were not pleased at the sight of gypsy characters and women smoking on stage or its theme of erotic obsession.
Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Helévy based the libretto on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella “Carmen,” which was inspired by a true story. However, digging into the sordid lives for the sensationalizing themes of betrayal and murder offended the Parisians of the time. How could it not be provocative?
Furthermore, critics called “Carmen” “vulgar,” “undramatic,” and “contemptible.” Thus, Bizet died at the age of 36 after the 33rd performance of “Carmen,” believing that his opera was a failure.
With its depiction of street life, immorality, and lawlessness, and the tragic death of the main character on stage, the opera was highly controversial. After Bizet’s death, it took years for “Carmen” to be rediscovered and, for good or ill, is now considered one of the most popular in the opera pantheon.
Fortunately for today’s audiences, Bizet’s work, under the direction of Marie Lambert-Le Bihan, moves swiftly and elegantly; and the Lyric Opera’s orchestra, masterfully conducted by Henrik Nánási, provides such a terrific rendering of Bizet’s musical score that the audience gave the orchestra a resounding ovation. In sum, this “Carmen,” Lyric Opera of Chicago’s thrilling production soars.
Obsession and Retribution
It’s a tale of Don Jose, a fiery, dramatic soldier, who is seduced by Carmen. He abandons his childhood sweetheart, turns away from his military career, and then commits a most tragic act when Carmen throws him over for someone else.
Set in Seville, Spain in the 1820s, the opera’s backdrop of glittering gold and red by designer Robin Don depicts a sizzling Spanish atmosphere, and the lavish costumes designed by Robert Perdziola capture the mid-19th century period well. Add to that, the explosive choreography by Stephanie Martinez and the chorus of townspeople led by Michael Black evoke a sense of the hot-blooded passion of the people of Seville.
The story revolves around a young woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon to manipulate, to control, and to bend men to her will. She acknowledges that she falls in love with someone new every few months, but she’s not really capable of love. She lies and makes a pretense of endearment to entice those she needs. For her, sex is all about power. She is Carmen, the temptress that all men want, and none can have for more than the time it takes for the vixen to get what she wants. But in the climactic finale to the opera, Carmen pays the ultimate price for her reckless immorality.
In this revival, Carmen, played by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, is compelling as the woman enticing men to their doom and bringing the same upon herself.
It’s a mesmerizing moment when the opera opens with Bridges singing at the beginning of Act 1 at the same time as the cigarette girls emerge from the factory. Those workers exchange flirtatious play with the young men in the crowd when Carmen enters. She sings her provocative aria “Habanera” on the untamed nature of love, and all the men plead with her to choose them as her lover.
The tragedy deepens when she seduces Don Jose (velvety-rich tenor Charles Castronovo). Don Josè’s sweetheart Micaëla (portrayed by silver-voiced soprano Golda Schultz making her Lyric debut) is the good woman Josè was supposed to marry, who brings him news that his mother needs to see him. But he is so enamored with Carmen that he ignores Micaëla’s pleadings.
The action turns violent when Carmen attacks a woman she works with, and she is tied up to prevent more violence. She tempts Don Josè to cut the bonds. He does so and she escapes while he is imprisoned for helping her.
Further contributing to a wonderful performance is baritone Andrei Kymach who comes through with a splendid swaggering arrogance as Escamillo, the toreador who becomes the flavor of the month for Carmen, and who delivers a stirring version of the “Toreador Song.”
“Carmen” is still provocative but not for the faint of heart. It is a compelling opera—depicting dramatically a consequence of using people for selfish ends—with the most entrancing musical score. The Lyric’s presentation of it is guaranteed to hold one’s attention from beginning to its fascinating end.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL
Tickets: 312-827-5600 or LyricOpera.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 25 minutes (with 2 intermissions)
Closes: April 7, 2023