Strong second-cast “Carmen” provides fine finish to Lyric Opera season

Sun Mar 13, 2011 at 12:54 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nadia Krasteva and Brandon Jovanovich in “Carmen” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Dan Rest.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is closing its season with the surefire box office of the audience favorite Carmen, the second half of the Bizet revival that opened last October.

Those fall performances were hobbled by the last-minute cancellation of Kate Aldrich in the title role. Katharine Goeldner sang admirably in her stead but didn’t bring much dramatic fire or personality to the role of the free-living and -loving gypsy temptress.

Happily, the new principal singers in the second-cast run, which opened Saturday night, are all gain. If this is still not a Carmen for the ages, it’s now a much more dramatically involving and consistently sung production than that heard last fall.

Taking over the role of Don Jose, assayed in October by Yonghoon Lee, Brandon Jovanovich was a first-class anti-hero across the board. His Flower Song could have used more Gallic finesse and elegance opening night, yet the American tenor sang throughout the long evening with intelligence and impassioned yet refined vocalism.

Dramatically Jovanovich was terrific, bringing an emotional depth and inspired acting to Don Jose, which made his downfall from good-hearted soldier to obsessive lover and, finally, unhinged murderer scarily believable.

Nicole Cabell proved equally ideal as Micaela, etching a more finely detailed portrait of the good girl Don Jose forsakes for the temptress Carmen than most. Vocally, the soprano was a clear improvement over Elaine Alvarez’s shaky performance last fall, and Cabell’s Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante was a highlight of the evening, sung with conviction and glowing tone, as was her first act duet with Jovanovich.

As Carmen, Nadia Krasteva was perhaps less distinctive than her two colleagues but seemed a more natural fit with the role than Goeldner. The Bulgarian mezzo’s voice is not large yet possesses the requisite agility and dusky tone, and she sang well throughout, notably so in the fortune-telling scene. Krasteva isn’t the most naturally sexy Carmen around either but her very physical gypsy certainly makes you believe she is, with some individual touches—not least pulling up her dress with her teeth to better entice Don Jose when her hands are bound behind her back.

Dramatically, Krasteva was a worthy and mostly fiery Carmen, though oddly low-key in the final scene where she needs to ratchet up the emotional temperature a few notches to match Jovanovich’s intensity. Give Krasteva points for carrying on after tripping and taking a hard fall at the end of Act 1 as Carmen makes her escape.

Kyle Ketelsen is back to repeat his well-sung aristocratic Escamillo, as are Emily Fons and Jennifer Jakob, wonderfully characterful as Carmen’s cohorts, Mercedes and Frasquita.

Alain Altinoglu’s conducting—and his astounding baton technique—-are even more impressive than last fall. The French conductor showed complete sympathy with every facet of Bizet’s score, and drew luminous and brilliant playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Carmen runs through March 27.;  312-332-2244.

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