New Carmen Riffs on Picasso’s Guernica

15/02/2017

Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago / Harry Bicket (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 11.2.2017. (JLZ)

Ekaterina Gubanova and Joseph Calleja in 'Carmen' (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Ekaterina Gubanova and Joseph Calleja in Carmen (c) Todd Rosenberg

Cast:
Carmen – Ekaterina Gubanova
Don José – Joseph Calleja
Micaëla – Eleonora Buratto
Escamillo – Christian Van Horn
Frasquita – Diana Newman
Mercédès – Lindsay Metzger
Zuniga – Bradley Smoak
Lillas Pastia – Alec Carlson
Dancaïre – Emmet O’Hanlon
Remendado – Mingjie Lei
Moralés – Takaoki Onishi

Production:
Conductor – Harry Bicket
Director & Choreographer – Rob Ashford
Set Designer – David Rockwell
Lighting Designer – Donald Holder
Chorus Master – Michael Black

Billed in advertising around the city as a blockbuster, Bizet’s Carmen delivers a bold staging. New to Chicago, the co-production with Houston Grand Opera updates the setting to the Spanish Civil War, and draws on imagery from one of the most iconic artworks from that period, Picasso’s Guernica. As director Rob Ashford comments in the program notes, the symbolic bull from Guernica suggested Carmen’s conclusion, and became key to his conception.

The image of the bull is present from the start, in a subtly choreographed opening sequence with a male dancer in a bull mask, with several other dancers dressed as toreadors. The bull returns periodically, and for the ending, Ashford uses it to underscore the story’s tragic conclusion, along with other dance elements.

Ashford’s production also opts for spoken dialogue instead of recitative, even though some of the projected translations of dialogue elicited some unintentional laughter. (Ultimately the differences in spoken French seem more profound than when the language is sung, and suggest the need for a consistent spoken style.)

Not all elements of this staging raise questions, though. The production’s lighting reinforced the mood, as it colored the representational sets with appropriate shading and intensity.

Conductor Harry Bicket gave a vivid, transparent reading of the score. Tempos were fresh and exciting, with the dance-rhythms of the first-act Séguidilla articulated with infectious style. Bicket achieved a similar effect in the second act, also filled with dances, in a seamless flow. From orchestral tuttis to thin passages with chamber-music scorings, Bicket made this familiar score exciting. It was no surprise that the audience burst into applause after the Bicket’s sensitive reading of the prelude to Act III.

Principals responded well, especially Ekaterina Gubanova making her debut in the title role. Gubanova’s full-bodied mezzo-soprano was convincing from her entrance, struggling as she was carried to the stage by four soldiers. While some of the passages in the first act were obscured by the orchestra, this was not the case in the second, where Gubanova’s vocal presence carried from start to finish. In the duet with Joseph Calleja as Don José (‘Je vais danser en votre honneur … La fleur que tu m’avais jetée  …Non! Tu ne m’aimes pas!’) Gubanova soared, intensifying her character, and in the final act, her passion and conviction confirmed her status as gifted singer and actress.

As Don José, Calleja showed an effortless, velvety tenor, dominating the stage but never at the expense of tone or pitch. His duet with Eleonora Buratto as Micaëla (‘Parle-moi de ma mère’) was exemplary for its reliable execution. As Micaëla, Buratto’s pristine soprano showed clarity and purity of tone. She shaped the phrases with perfection, especially in her commanding third-act aria, ‘C’est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire’. Christian Van Horn was convincing as Escamillo, deploying a resonant low range. The famous ‘Toreador’s Song’ benefited from Van Horn’s sensitivity to the text, and he extended that subtle touch to Act III in his scene with Calleja (‘Je suis Escamillo, torero de Grenade!’). And in the final scene, Van Horn lent stark presence, looming over Carmen with the dancer’s bull mask as the curtain descends.

The chorus was especially fresh and lively, with accurate pitch and clean diction; in the first act, the men sounded rich and textured, evoking the scene at the opening of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. In the final act, the mixed chorus evoked the image of an entire town attending the bullfight—further evidence of the leadership of chorus master Michael Black.

James L. Zychowicz

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