Review: Lyric’s Carmen Features Strong Performances, But the Plot Can Be Troubling

Georges Bizet produced some of opera’s most memorable music for Carmen, his 1875 composition, set in Spain and sung in French, about a wildly free-spirited woman whose fickle and domineering personality leads to a very unhappy ending.

Lyric Opera’s March 11 opening of its current production of Carmen, directed by Marie Lambert-Le Bihan, does well by the music, with strong performances by all the cast’s leads. But it could not assuage queasiness over the story’s increasingly dark climax, built around an appalling act of violence against the title character by an obsessed ex-lover.

I had seen Carmen many years ago and do not recall being so troubled by the plot. Perhaps it was because I was fairly new to opera and was just smitten with the amazing voices. Maybe the implications of its treatment of violence against women just were not as obvious to me then.

But the demise of Carmen (performed by international mezzo-soprano star J’nai Bridges) at the hands of the cuckolded Don José (tenor Charles Castronovo) has a sort of ripped-from-today’s headlines feel with its increasingly brutal actions by a dumped ex.

It is true that Carmen is portrayed as a horribly self-centered manipulator who tosses lovers aside to back up her declaration that she will never be owned by one man.

Andrei Kymach as bullfighter Escamillo. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Yet the only way the ending can be justified is to say she had it coming, a viewpoint about “crimes of passion” that today is rejected by most people. Don José is saying, without the words, that if I can't have you, nobody will.

The libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy reflects late 19th century values (as so many historical masterpieces), and many tragic operas through the centuries have much more blood-letting than Carmen does. This opera is recommended for those who can appreciate the spectacle and music while setting aside modern sensibilities. But if you are triggered by domestic violence, or violence against women in general, this is not the opera for you. And if you are also put off by the idea of bullfighting, you might want to take a pass, since Escamillo, the toreador of the opera’s famous Toreador Song, is lavished with hero treatment.

Another consideration is the length of this piece, with the convoluted plot wending its way through roughly 3.5 hours. Thank goodness for the more comfortable seats they installed in the Lyric Opera House a couple of years ago.

At the start of the opera, Carmen is a cigarette factory worker in 1820s Seville, whose beauty and charisma have made her a local celebrity. Don José is a soldier with the rank of corporal who pledges to fulfill his mother’s wish that he marry the sweet Michaëla (soprano Golda Schultz), the one truly sympathetic character in the story. But after he arrests Carmen for slashing a co-worker, he falls madly in love at first sight (this happens surprisingly often in opera) and commits an act on her behalf that lands him in prison.

Act II introduces Escamillo (baritone Andrei Kymach), who arrives with appropriate bravado. Meanwhile, Don José, returning to his military unit upon his release from jail, finds Carmen and pledges his love, which she will return only if he gives up his settled life to join her and her fellow Roma friends in a smuggling operation in Spain’s mountains. (Roma, perjoratively known as gypsies, are frequently portrayed in literature as criminals.) Don José then attacks a superior officer in defense of Carmen, leaving him no choice but to go on the lam at the end of Act II.

J'ani Bridges cuts a colorful figure as Carmen at the beginning of Act II. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Act III, set in the smugglers’ mountain hideout, is when the opera turns dark, literally and figuratively. Carmen, drawing interest from Escamillo, is bored with Don José and tells him to leave, to which he responds with physical abuse and a death threat forestalled when Michaëla tracks him down and beseeches him to attend to his dying mother. That only delays the ugly inevitable, which takes place outside the bullfight arena in the opera’s last scene.

Bridges performs the role of Carmen with panache, excelling at the familiar aria "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" (Love is a rebellious bird) in Act I and the scene at the start of Act II in which she and other women perform a table-top flamenco at Lillas Pastas’ tavern. But her vocals did not register as strongly as those of Schultz—whose small but crucial role drew a rousing ovation at the end—Castronovo, and Kymach.

Bizet composed Carmen with major roles for a chorus, which performed ably in the Lyric’s production, though there were so many singers that the stage seemed overly crowded at times.

The set design by Robin Don, mostly focused on the ancient walls of Seville, is unobtrusive, though a quibble with the mountain scene in Act III: The backdrop that shows a dark sky and full moon is striking at first, but it starts to feel a bit weird that the moon hasn’t moved at all through stage action that lasts about a half-hour.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra was conducted by Henrik Nánási.

There are four more performances of Carmen at the Lyric Opera House: 2pm matinees on March 15 and 19, a 7pm curtain on March 22 and a 7:30pm curtain on March 25. Click here for tickets for performances on March 15 (tickets priced at $80-$350), March 19 ($80-$350), March 22 ($60-$305), and March 25 ($80-$350).

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.