Inept direction, miscast mezzo plunge a knife into Lyric Opera’s lightweight “Carmen”

Sun Feb 12, 2017 at 6:32 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Joseph Calleja and Ekaterina Gubanova star in Bizet's "Carmen" at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Joseph Calleja and Ekaterina Gubanova star in Bizet’s “Carmen” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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.

Pauvre Bizet.

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.; 312-827-5600.

Posted in Performances

20 Responses to “Inept direction, miscast mezzo plunge a knife into Lyric Opera’s lightweight “Carmen””

  1. Posted Feb 12, 2017 at 9:15 pm by James Edwards III

    Boy, somebody’s got an axe to grind! What a uselessly biased review.

  2. Posted Feb 12, 2017 at 9:28 pm by Anne-Marie

    Is Lyric Opera of Chicago turning grand opera into Broadway musical extravaganza? The review nailed everything that was mediocre about this production of a beloved opera, thank you Mr. Johnson.

    Of late, Lyric, in its efforts to broaden its audience base, has cheapened this venerable art form and I’m seriously thinking of changing my subscription into a selective experience. Joseph Calleja was the reason for my great anticipation of this Carmen. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t have a Denyce Graves(in her vocal prime) as his Carmen.

    The Picasso concept of the bull’s head was very distracting indeed and the tragic ending seemed to be trivialized by the two dancers in the final scene. I suppose I should have closed my eyes and simply listened to Bizet’s glorious music.

  3. Posted Feb 13, 2017 at 8:57 am by Lorin Pritikin

    I have been going to opera for 30 years at Lyric. Never before have I been so disappointed by a production! I want to think Lawrence Johnson for his review because it was actually cathartic to read it. I have never before been compelled to write a letter to Lyric and I did not even know to whom I should address it. There was so much wrong with the production and Johnson got it right– he nailed it.

    I was going to start with the direction and move into the dancing and then question who in their right mind could have thought Gubanova could act or sing Carmen. She was the worst Carmen I have ever witnessed! I am still so upset that I am sending this for a few to all I know who had to endure my rant about the worst production I’ve seen in 30 years. The director should be barred from all opera!

    I left to go to Carmen on Saturday night yearning for high drama and I left stunned from disappointment! And I do agree that Renée Fleming’s invitation of musicals into Lyrics opera house has played to an audience that does not know the difference between Showboat and Carmen. And that is regrettable. I started out in the rafters and have moved to the main floor after all these years and I am questioning whether or not my money could be put to better use. I only hope that Renée Fleming would read these commentaries.

  4. Posted Feb 13, 2017 at 11:53 am by John Fricke

    Bravo for your review, but you were almost too kind. I have been going to Lyric Opera since 1971. This was not only easily the worst Carmen I have ever seen, it was uncomfortably horrible in stage direction – (what in the world was the man-bull doing!- how childish), lead singer, clunky sets that allowed only 25% of the space to be employed, keeping a symmetrically posed space cast in a semi-circle. You know you’re in trouble when the curtain was the highlight of the night

  5. Posted Feb 13, 2017 at 11:54 am by Charles Rhodes

    Thanks for telling the truth.

  6. Posted Feb 13, 2017 at 12:13 pm by Paul Anthony

    Thank you for this review! It’s such a shame to see this kind of poorly thought out work in a place like the Lyric! It’s part of the reason I’ve started attending the opera seasons at companies like Madison Opera (who just closed a spectacular production of Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird), Florentine Opera, and Minnesota Opera. These companies, despite their smaller size and financial limits, have consistently created amazing works that easily rival the Lyric’s.

  7. Posted Feb 13, 2017 at 2:01 pm by Stickles

    While I agree with most of the points here, I did enjoyed the bull to a point. The bull symbolizes Carmen and the story parallels that of a bullfight. The dance of the bull in the prelude repeats with Carmen as the center point during the Habanera. In the final act the audience to the bullfight is visible to us as they are also a witness to the end of Carmen as the doomed antagonist.

    However there are so many other missteps in the direction that utterly sabotaged the director’s one half-decent idea. How ridiculous is it that when the crowd is singing “Where is Carmencita?” and yet she is standing right in front of them with a gigantic spotlight on her face?

  8. Posted Feb 13, 2017 at 3:16 pm by Kenneth Chrzastek

    Mr. Johnson nailed it. An enormous fiasco on all counts (except the singing of Mr. Calleja).

    As a subscriber of 45 years, who vividly remembers the Carol Fox, Ardis Krainik and William Mason years……where the hell are Ms. Fleming and Mr. Freud taking us?

  9. Posted Feb 14, 2017 at 1:48 pm by Lisa Hirsch

    SF Opera has been amplifying dialog for a very long time, at least the last 15 years. It is because it’s harder to get enough volume with spoken text than with sung text.

  10. Posted Feb 19, 2017 at 11:23 pm by Robert Prindle

    The critique by Mr. Johnson and most of the ensuing comments are fairly reflective of this Carmen. As a chorister who started in 1975, I was somewhat disappointed by this Carmen. Nonetheless, it should be noted our audience seems to enjoy much of the show. The need for miked dialogue, however, should be unnecessary. I have done dialogue in productions in the Civic Opera House and did NOT require amplification.

    It should also be noted that Rob Ashford barely showed up and NEVER directed the chorus (I heard he did have a rehearsal with the dancers BUT I can’t verify this). Whether this makes things better or worse for him others can decide.

    We have been extremely fortunate to have some extraordinary singing this year (especially Lucia, Quichotte, and Norma). And the cast of Onegin could certainly continue this.

    It is true that many back of the house employees (chorus, orchestra, extraordinary stage crew) have concerns about our direction and creative consultant. Numbers of performances have fallen from the 80’s to about 60. And, no Jesus Christ superstar or musicals don’t replace opera. As Ardis Krainik said :”we do opera because that’s what we do best”.

    Diluting our primary mission statement “becoming the great North American opera company of the 21st century” by offering a sideshow of attractions is virtually an oxymoron. Offering an early retirement package to dozens of long-term employees in May 2016 to dissipate a sense of history and continuity also concerned many of us.

    In the final analysis it is the audience who will determine the future. Call, write, e-mail the general director with praise or pithy putdowns. It is YOUR money and your time. And it is NEVER a performance without YOU! Thanks for your decades of support.

  11. Posted Feb 21, 2017 at 3:26 pm by Philip Kraus

    I so appreciate the detail in your reviews. You always back up your points with a wealth of description.

    I covered Bartolo in the Ashford Barber of Seville you mentioned. The direction was certainly uninspired compared with John Copley who had directed the previous production of the opera where I was fortunate to sing the first three performances. I would agree that it is not in the art form’s best interest to imitate musicals.

    I would also mention that the need to amplify spoken dialogue in the 3000 + seat Civic Opera House is probably necessary. I recall Lyric was doing it as far back as Candide during the Krainik years. The main reason it is needed is that many opera singers are not trained to project spoken dialogue; many fear it hurts their voices. Luckily my own experience doing Gilbert and Sullivan operas prepared me to deal with the spoken word.

    My solution for Carmen in a large house? Use the recitatives written after Bizet’s death. There is nothing wrong with them and typical opera singers are far more comfortable with them.

  12. Posted Feb 22, 2017 at 9:11 am by James Genden

    One other minor concern about the production which has not been mentioned. The setting was harmlessly updated to the Spanish Civil War era. No real problem there.

    But concept was somehow that Jose was joining the “revolutionaries.” The director’s note and the use of the word “revolutionary” in the titles was puerile and shows little understanding of the Civil War or any depth of understanding of that era. It seemed like a totally unnecessary attempt to link the bull to “Guernica” (supposedly the director’s inspiration for his bull-dancer concept, as if Carmen of — all operas — does not already have symbolism with a bull.

    The only “revolutionaries” in the Spanish Civil War were the bad guys, the Hitler-Mussolini supported Falange led by Franco — the folks who bombed Guernica. And they weren’t called the “revolutionaries’ — they were the Nationalists, fighting the Republicans. Neither side was called “the revolutionaries.”

    Of course, Carmen has no perceptible political content. The “liberte” Carmen and the smugglers sing about is not political– it is freedom from convention and ordinary rules of civil society and social mores. It is the same concept that another Don, Giovanni, sings about in the Mozart’s Act I finale (“viva la liberta”). The “liberte” Carmen wants has nothing to do with fighting (or supporting) fascism.

  13. Posted Feb 24, 2017 at 6:39 pm by j. a. van sant

    Forgive this old hand at opera observations, but the respected Lawrence Johnson put his emphasis in the wrong place when he wrote that the mezzo-soprano Carmen at the Lyric had a voice a size too small for the role. I have to wonder; it just might have been put that the LOC auditorium is a size and-then-some too large for the Russian mezzo and many another singer–perhaps ‘most’ other singers.

    Over many years attending opera in Chicago, San Francisco and New York, my considered opinion is that the principal opera venues in all three cities are far too large for most operatic performances. The 3700-seat Met playing Baroque opera and even Mozart, constitutes artistic compromise any way you look at it. Much the same is true in Chicago and San Fran. All three of these cities are spending big money presenting what is supposed to be (and charged for accordingly) state-of-the-art operatic art. I shall dare to comment that audiences in all three cities are being ripped off. A Gluck opera at the Lyric? Forget about it!

    These days you have to go to St. Louis, Kansas City, Houston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Seattle and a few other places in North America to enjoy opera in appropriately-sized houses.

    The Big Three may have the endowments and the press, but they are not offering the operatic art as they should, yet they are all in very wealthy cities with plenty of donors to respond if they just had the leadership to call for change and make it happen.

    I have heard Carmen in several of the smaller venues mentioned above and it is altogether better experience than in the airplanehanger-sized shoebox Mr Insull built in 1929!!

  14. Posted Mar 01, 2017 at 12:01 am by Sara A. Solla

    Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for an accurate and detailed review. I am in the habit of not reading your comments until after seeing the performance, so as to not be biased or influenced by your opinion. I have just come back home from seeing Carmen at the Lyric, and I am grateful to have found in your review such a clear explanation of what is wrong with this performance.

    I felt increasingly disengaged and disappointed as I heard and saw this much beloved opera, and I could not quite put my finger on what was wrong, beyond really disliking Ms. Gubanova’s Carmen. I did not enjoy her singing, and much less her acting. She seemed to be more of a petulant, irritable, and egocentric teenager than an irresistible seductress. Although the casting of Carmen was unforgivably wrong, this was not the only problem. The dance numbers and stage directions were indeed sophomoric.

    Mr. Johnson’s review goes through all that was wrong with this Carmen, and in doing so it helped me understand better my own negative reaction. This is by far the worst Carmen I have ever seen, compared to a previous version at the Lyric (was it 2010?) and performances at several other opera houses both within and outside the US.

    What a disappointment!

  15. Posted Mar 03, 2017 at 1:53 pm by Paul Ansell

    Thank you, Larry Johnson, for once again providing us with valuable and informative criticism.

    I also appreciate almost all of the excellent and insightful comments. One reader commented on the fact that SF Opera also mics their spoken dialogue. Shameful, but not surprising, since it seems that both actors and singers are no longer taught to PROJECT! (This is true at Steppenwolf and other major theaters. If the actor is not facing center stage, quite often they’re inaudible.)

    Don Jose, the chorus and the children’s chorus were the highlight of an otherwise woeful production.

  16. Posted Mar 04, 2017 at 10:50 am by Akmatlak

    I am in so much agreement with this review. I found the bad interpretive dancing & spoken dialogue distracting at best. The sets,costumes everything was a bit meh. I get it, is the 1930s, but do the costumes have to be so drab and uninspiring to show this? It looked like the costume department raided a local Goodwill store. I didn’t think it possible that Bizet’s Carmen could be made to be so boring and uninteresting.

    I loved Calleja but even he looked a little lost at times. Gubanov was a terrible Carmen. Even the audience sucked. It seemed like most of them were there to see a musical not an opera and that is what they got.

    I have had a subscription to Lyric for almost 20 years now and this is the first time I feel like sending a letter of complaint to the management about their mediocre productions lately. I just renewed my subscription but this production really made me wonder why I keep at it.

  17. Posted Mar 04, 2017 at 11:18 pm by Peter DG

    We went to the Friday 3/3 evening performance and it was not as bad as I expected after reading all the comments here and elsewhere. Yes, the bull and the Spanish “revolutionaries” were disgusting. I suspect they cut back on the bull after the first performance – there were many loud blasts of the fate theme when the bull was not there. The Carmen was not very hot, and for me Calleja’s vibrato is excessive, though it didn’t seem as bad as in the opening night radio broadcast. Very nice Ryan Center supporting role singing.

    As to the amplification – it was not as bad as I expected. I find the amping of the Lyric musicals to be terrible. But in this Carmen there seemed to be some effort to actually set the balance according to where the actor was on stage and it seemed to be at a reasonable volume. Roger Pines’ seemed to have abridged the text to the absolute minimum. But it is pointless. With the super titles we don’t need to hear the French which moat of us can’t understand anyway. Just doing the dialog in English might be less of a travesty.

    Also, sitting in the first row we were struck by quite loud talk that sounded like stage directions, at two point of rather quiet music – maybe the prompter, prompting the dancers or something, was picked up by a live mike. It sounded like it came from the back of the pit.

    All in all it could have been much better, but it was OK. We’ll see what the second cast is like.

  18. Posted Mar 06, 2017 at 11:02 am by Andrew B Simmons

    I think the review was a bit harsh. Granted the production (we saw on 3/3) was hardly of the Marilyn Horne/James McCracken caliber in terms of singing and drama (I’m really dating myself here!), but it wasn’t all that horrid either.

    And people are making too much of the bull. Seriously, how big a part of the whole 3+ hours was he? I give the director credit for trying something new at least.

    I really missed the cutting of the extended “genre scene” chorus after the curtain went up in Act IV. That to me was symbolic of how little the director understood Carmen. To me that chorus crystallizes the whole opera: life goes on very publicly while each of us has own own internal struggles. Sticking the children’s chorus in there exclusively totally misses the point. Ugh. And yes, Joseph Calleja was am amazing DJ – maybe as good as McCracken! :)

    In the end, Bizet wins. Such glorious music for 3+ hours is a gift from God, dancing bull or no.

  19. Posted Mar 10, 2017 at 12:33 am by Ezra Getzler

    This review completely captures the production. A Carmen who was completely lost, an orchestra performing at far below its potential (witness their masterful performance of Eugene Onegin the same week), and truly embarrassing ballet. The one bright spot was Calleja, but he sadly couldn’t compensate for the mess around him (and the very ugly staging).

    I differ on one point. It hardly mattered that the dialogue was amplified, since the accents were so unnatural that it barely sounded like French.

    You forgot to mention that the program notes were by a freshman at Georgetown University. Though to be honest, they were no worse than Martha Nussbaum’s effort last year.

  20. Posted Mar 23, 2017 at 3:31 pm by Donald Hoffman

    Saw the show last night. Your review was spot on. Perhaps even worse, since I saw the second cast. The climax was the stage manager who forgot to give Jose his knife, so Carmen had to die from a poke.

    As the Lyric turns all show bizzy, I fear that the audience who cheered their idiot heads off will be pandered to by shows like this and the audience will get even stupider and the shows even trashier. I wish I had read your review before I went to that ghastly mess.

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