Inept direction, miscast mezzo plunge a knife into Lyric Opera’s lightweight “Carmen”
You knew it was going to be a long night at the Civic Opera House when the undulating shirtless male dancer with a bull’s head mask appeared during the opening Prelude to menace a group of fellow dancers dressed as toreadors.
That pretty much set the sophomoric tone for Lyric Opera’s hapless new production of Bizet’s Carmen, which opened Saturday night.
One hoped that this show would continue this season’s successful French series, following Lyric’s highly praised productions of Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
Instead, this unevenly sung, dramatically limp, ineptly directed Carmen gave us the low point of the company’s current season. In addition to moments of unwonted comedy, it also provided an examplar of the unforced errors that continue to occur with regularity in the current Lyric Opera era: a grievously miscast singer in the title role, a show-bizzy production that did little to convey a masterwork’s musical and dramatic qualities, and a stage director who should be working at a car wash.
It was clear to anyone with eyes who attended Lyric Opera’s 2014 Barber of Seville that whatever his success in Broadway musicals, Rob Ashford has no idea about how to direct an opera. A strong cast and attractive production managed to carry the day for those Rossini performances, but Ashford’s amateurish direction showed little sympathy for the genre in his first opera assignment.
Only at Lyric can you blow a debut that badly and get rewarded with return engagements. Ashford has never directed a production of Carmen previously; but so incompetent and clueless was his staging one has to wonder if he has ever even seen one.
Bizet’s tragic love story of the good-hearted soldier Don José driven to ruin by his love for the heartless gypsy Carmen remains among the finest operas ever created–with a nonstop flow of indelible melody, striking psychological penetration and, in the best productions, a cumulative buildup to a violent, nerve-shattering finale.
Ashford repeatedly diluted the intensity of those peak moments, showed little familiarity with the story’s dramatic arc, and sloughed over depth of characterization. Indeed, his overall approach was one of lightweight musical theater. He treated nearly every vocal set piece as a “number” to insert high-stepping dance sequences, which repeatedly distracted from the lead singers–rather than as crucial moments that reveal character and build dramatic suspense.
So after Carmen slashes the face of a coworker offstage, he has soldiers carry her in above their heads, legs and arms flailing for comic effect. She later knees Zuniga in the groin to make her escape, like something out of a lowbrow sitcom. After exiting with Micaëla in Act 3 to return to his dying mother, Ashford has Don José return to slap Carmen hard across the face in a completely unmotivated directorial conceit.
And you just knew that the guy with the bull mask would return in the final scene for more elephantine symbolism, engaging in a fatal pas de deux with a toreador dancer simultaneously with the final confrontation between Carmen and Don José. If that wasn’t distracting enough, Ashford then has Bull Mask drag the dead toreador off stage between the two principals. It takes a certain insolent lack of talent to upstage your leads at the climax of the evening and destroy one of the most searing final scenes in all opera.
In addition to the choreographer-director’s emphasis on irrelevant dancing and visual distractions, Ashford showed a lack of basic stage blocking ability that wouldn’t pass muster at a community college. His sole idea is to bring principals to the front of the stage and sing out at the audience–a device he repeated over and over and over again whether it fit the dramatic situation or not.
Likewise, instead of working out varied and natural stage movements for the principals and chorus, Ashford falls back on stale musical cliches. At the end of Act 2 he channels Les Miz with the chorus at the footlights, hoisting rifles in the air. Lyric apparently cheaped out on a parade of bullfighters and dignitaries in Act 4, so Ashford has the kids and adult chorus crowd at the front of the stage, pointing and waving at the audience, as if about to break into “The Wells-Fargo Wagon” from Music Man. And he actually ends “Les tringles des sistres” with Carmen hoisted on the dancer’s shoulders, her arms thrown out wide like Patti Lupone. You might have been expecting Bizet’s opera, but Ashford instead gives us Carmen–The Musical!
Finally, when did it become acceptable to amplify the spoken dialogue in Carmen? Or any opera for that matter? This is another example of elements of Lyric Opera’s dubious musical theater initiative creeping into the opera house. (“We do it now for musicals and operettas, so why not for main-stage operas?”) That the amplification was handled so incompetently–booming out, than dropping way down, with the knob-twiddler’s inability to find the right balance a constant distraction—is beside the point. Amplification doesn’t belong in opera at all, and it’s more than a little unnerving that current artistic leadership doesn’t seem to know or care that there are genuinely important differences between producing opera and musical theater.
I could go on–the lack of energy and listless direction from stage and pit in the final scene; Carmen singing to the audience rather than facing Don José in their unimpassioned confrontations; and the overall lack of taste, savvy and sophistication–sadly reflective of other company low points in recent seasons.
Not that any of this mattered to the clap-happy opening-night audience who seemed hopped up on nitrous oxide–laughing loudly in all the wrong places, egged on by blankly literal surtitles–and cheering anything that moved, including the lunatic in the balcony who screamed “BRAVO!!!” after the Prelude to Act 3.
If the company had engaged a halfway decent Carmen, the staging lapses might have been less fatal. Apart from being a mezzo-soprano, it’s hard to fathom why the powers that be thought Ekaterina Gubanova would make a suitable Carmen, a role she has never sung anywhere before Saturday night.
While her singing was fitfully solid–as in the Habanera and the fortune reading scene– Gubanova sounded vocally miscast. The Russian singer’s soft-grained voice seemed a size too small for the role, her projection was uneven, and Gubanova’s mushy French proved inscrutable throughout the evening.
Dramatically, she completely failed to provide any of the gypsy’s danger or alluring sensuality. Hers was a tentative, old-fashioned Carmen, with hands-on-hips cliches that were musty a half-century ago. Worse, Gubanova seemed largely disengaged as an actress, providing little energy or intensity. She made no attempt at dancing or using the castanets, and her scenes with Don José went repeatedly off the boil, with Ashford allowing her to sing and address the audience rather than her spurned lover.
Joseph Calleja deserves some kind of award for soldiering bravely on as Don José despite everything around him. The Maltese tenor consistently provided the evening’s best moments, singing with strength and sensitivity in his duet with Micaëla and floating a lovely, golden-toned “Flower Song,” which proved the highlight of the evening. Calleja is one of the finest, most natural actors in opera today and he brought a regular-guy credibility and touching empathy to Don José’s downfall. The tenor was consistently engaged in the drama even when undermined by Ashford’s distractions and his on-and-off costar.
Eleonora Buratto made a sympathetic presence as Micaëla, providing the right good-girl contrast to Carmen. The Italian soprano sang capably, though her Act 3 aria was rather choppily delivered.
The role of Escamillo seemed high for Christian Van Horn yet the towering bass-baritone delivered his usual excellence in the role of Don Jose’s romantic rival, throwing off a sonorous yet swaggering “Toreador Song”
When you find yourself wondering why Don José puts up with Carmen rather than taking off with one of her sexier friends that tells you something. As Frasquita and Mercedes, Diana Newman and Lindsay Metzger made a charismatic duo. The rest of the Lyric cast was equally characterful in support, including Takaoki Onishi as Morales, Bradley Smoak as Zuniga and Alec Carlson as Lillas Pastia. Michael Black’s Lyric Opera Chorus sang with power and polish and handled Ashford’s staging conceits with admirable professionalism.
David Rockwell’s minimalist production, concentrating on curved stone walls, didn’t offer much in the way of Spanish color or visual splendor but it didn’t get in the way either. Donald Holder’s lighting was highly effective, especially his red-orange sky in the final scene making manifest the burning midday Seville sun.
Harry Bicket is one of our leading Baroque opera conductors but he sounded seriously out of his element in Bizet’s drama—either taking arias at a crawl (the Habanera) or too fast (the Flower Song) and consistently shorting the eruptive power and Romantic coloring of the score. The Lyric Opera Orchestra seemed equally unsettled opening night with some dodgy wind tuning and brass lapses.
Who would think that a Baroque specialist would be suitable to conduct Bizet’s Carmen? Oh right, the same people who thought that Gubanova would be a great Carmen and that Rob Ashford knows how to direct an opera.
Carmen runs through March 6 and again from March 16-25. In the second series Anita Rachvelishvili is Carmen and Brandon Jovanovich is Don José with Ainars Rubikis conducting. lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.
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