Dramatic sparks are few in Lyric Opera’s low-energy “Carmen”

Thu Mar 16, 2023 at 11:35 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

J’Nai Bridges and Charles Castronovo in Bizet’s Carmen at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Lyric Opera’s most recent attempt at Carmen six years ago proved one for the ages and not in a good way. The production exemplified everything that is wrong with the never-ending Anthony Freud era: a grievously miscast singer in the title role, unidiomatic conducting, an inane production and Broadway-style stage direction that made Baz Luhrmann seem like Max Reinhardt.

The Chicago company is having another go at Georges Bizet’s timeless opera. The good news is that the current show is a step up and not nearly the 3-1/2-hour prison sentence of 2017.

And yet despite some worthy singing, the low-energy performance at Wednesday’s matinee never scaled the heights the opera requires—let alone the kind of theatrical intensity called for in the tale of the soldier Don Jose’s obsessive love for the heartless Carmen, which leads to his moral degradation, downfall and ultimately murder.

The main problem, as has so often been the case at this company over the past decade-plus, was the bland and uninspired conducting of Henrik Nánási, which weighed down the entire show. The Hungarian conductor made an undistinguished debut in Le nozze di Figaro in 2015—though having Karajan in the pit couldn’t have saved that garish show—and was even more of a drag on the company’s 2020 Madama Butterfly.

But in the Freud era at Lyric Opera nothing succeeds like failure and Nánási inexplicably keeps getting return invitations. He conducted with a generalized, superficial energy but there was zero nuance, Gallic refinement or musical understanding of this extraordinary score. Coordination with singers was a sometime thing and big moments when the orchestra should cut loose were consistently sloughed over. 

Most damaging was the lack of effective pacing and a feel for the long dramatic arc across five acts. Nánási merely brought an emphatic bar-to-bar literalism, with the result that whole sections of the opera, as in Act II, just ambled along without any fire or dramatic frisson. When you’re looking at your watch during Carmen, there is a problem.

That’s unfortunate because with a largely admirable cast, the performance should have been much better. As it is, this Carmen reaches the kind of passable mediocrity that has sadly become Lyric Opera’s acceptable baseline.

It was clear from her brief tenure as a Ryan Center young artist, that J’Nai Bridges was going places and quickly. She now enjoys an international career and is making Carmen something of a signature role.

There were moments Wednesday when Bridges’ Carmen still seemed something of a work in progress with a lack of seasoning—fitful under-projection and key moments that needed greater volume and intensity (as in the fortune-telling aria). Rolling up her sleeves in the opera’s final scene, as if she’s going to engage Don Jose in a wrestling match to the death was a dubious touch.

Yet with her charismatic stage presence, rich smoky mezzo, and acting bona fides, the role of Carmen fits Bridges very well indeed. Her French was exemplary and her singing always committed and engaging—she delivered the Habanera in a free and languorous manner, shading dynamics with an individual touch. She was always dramatically on point, embodying Carmen’s seductive qualities as well as her cool calculation. She conveyed Carmen’s independent spirit to the end, with her cavalier attitude to her own death in the violent denouement. 

Charles Castronovo has brought estimable vocalism and some excellent performances to Lyric Opera over the past decade, including Tamino, Nemorino and an unforgettable Lensky in Eugene Onegin.

Castronovo’s tenor seems to have lost some of its vibrancy and had an oddly covered quality Wednesday as if he was laboring under a cold. Still, he did all that was required in this challenging role, charting Don Jose’s downfall into homicidal obsession. The singer delivered an ardent  “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” with lovely hushed shading on the final notes.

Making her company debut was Golda Schultz as Micaela. The South African soprano rendered a graceful if light-voiced “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante,” making up for some fluttery vocalism earlier. Dramatically Schultz’s portrayal was somewhat unfocused, her mannered gestures as Micaela seeming better suited to Figaro’s flirtatious Susanna.

No Lyric production would be complete without some bewildering casting and such was the case with Andrei Kymach as Escamillo. The Ukrainian baritone’s singing gave little pleasure with a decidedly unheroic Toreador aria, narrow projection, and hard Slavic timbre with scant French elegance.

Ryan Center artists nicely filled out the smaller roles. William Clay Thompson, a first-year member, made a commanding impression as Zuniga, Don Jose’s superior officer. Tall and authoritative with an imposing bass voice, one couldn’t help feeling that this gifted young artist would have brought the kind of swagger and clarion vocalism to Escamillo that the billed singer lacked.

Denis Velez and Katherine DeYoung proved a worthy, well-sung duo as Carmen’s friends and partners in crime, Frasquita and Mercedes. Alejandro Luevanos was a characterful Lillas Pastia.  

The showbizzy Carmen production of 2015 was wisely jettisoned for Lyric’s aging but functional Robin Don staging. If the quasi-unit set is a bit monotonous, it doesn’t get in the way, effectively painting a dusty Spanish milieu, with a towering mountain crag providing visual contrast.

While not showing much imagination, Marie Lambert-Le Bihan directed the traditional production competently, which, for stage direction at Lyric, means an improvement.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra sounded almost audibly dispirited under Nanasi, but still performed with polished professionalism with notable horn and flute solos.

The most consistent element of the performance was the gleaming ensemble work of the Lyric Opera Chorus, which sang with striking power and resplendence under Michael Black’s direction.

Carmen runs through April 7. lyricopera.org

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3 Responses to “Dramatic sparks are few in Lyric Opera’s low-energy “Carmen””

  1. Posted Mar 16, 2023 at 12:18 pm by John

    How much more of this incompetent Lyric management can we endure before the company is ruined? I’ve never seen a company fall so fast.

  2. Posted Mar 23, 2023 at 3:22 pm by Sylvia

    This review seems overly harsh. Yes, the performance did not have any high voltage moments, but it was very coherent, well staged, with good rhythm, and sung capably by all the singers. There was some good acting too, especially by J’nai Bridges.

    What Chicago needs is criticism that is neither too harsh, like this one, or too indulgent like the one in the Trib. It’s unfortunate if the reviews by Mr. Johnson (he’s been harsh before in previous reviews) discourage people from going to the Lyric.

  3. Posted Mar 26, 2023 at 9:32 am by June

    After attending Saturday night’s performance, I found this review because I couldn’t wait to see if it was “just me.” I felt that the conductor really fell short and provided little spark to what should have been an amazing score. The stage was packed at times, but even with a large ensemble, I only felt that vocal punch once or twice in 3 1/2 hours. Golda Schultz got the largest ovation from the crowd, and I too, felt her performance was spectacular.

    While I will always enjoy a night at the opera, this performance was overall flat and unfortunately, failed to keep my attention at all times. I completely agree that some of the turning points (Carmen drawing the death card) weren’t nearly as amplified in the story as they should’ve been. I was also wondering a time or two if the sound could have been projected louder. From only the first row of the first mezzanine, I heard everything fine but that moment of *chills* never arrived despite an enormous ensemble. The children were a delightful surprise!

    If you’re considering Carmen for your very first opera, I think this is a pass. If you’re going for the love of the opera, you’ll have a nice time but a slight adjustment to your expectations would be wise.

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