Deck reshuffled, the cards confound ‘Carmen’

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(c) Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner portrays the free-spirited Gypsy and tenor Yonghoon Lee is Don José in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Bizet's "Carmen."

Review: Bizet’s “Carmen” 
at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Bizet’s ever-popular “Carmen” must be the closest thing to a sure-fire winner in the operatic canon. With its alluring anti-heroine and a score replete with great tunes so familiar that most of the audience could sing along, it’s a virtual slam-dunk. Except when it isn’t, quite.

Such a rule-proving exception is a revival of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Carmen” that first came to the stage 10 years ago. While there are musical moments of real pleasure, this is a “Carmen” in need of dramatic heat and constrained by singing that too often only hints at the opera’s earthy core of passion, seduction, jealousy and lust.

But the Lyric Opera is perhaps also victim of an unlucky tarot card. Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, who was supposed to sing the title role in all but one of the October performances, dropped out a week before opening due to complications of pregnancy. In her place was Katharine Goeldner, who was originally scheduled to sing only on Oct. 29.

Goeldner is now slated to sing all the October dates. Nadia Krasteva remains the scheduled Carmen for a second run of performances in March.

It’s possible this tepid enterprise will warm up, but opening night (Oct. 13) still felt like everybody was still getting to know each other – really well, if you know what I mean. Where we expected a certain animal magnetism between Goeldner’s Carmen and tenor Yonghoon Lee’s Don José, we were confronted by two characters circling cautiously and singing by the book.

Indeed, in Carmen’s signature aria, the sensuous and tantalizing habanera, Goeldner as a hot-blooded Gypsy seemed more the prancing school-girl – rather like José’s demure sweetie Micaela sans shoes and with her shoulders bared. Goeldner’s singing was secure but contained, insouciant perhaps but hardly torrid.

Given the replacement situation, opening-night nerves may have taken more than their usual toll. To be sure, Carmen’s rendezvous with José in the Act II tavern scene displayed more genuine ardor, and Lee’s soulful delivery of Don José’s “Flower Song” saw the first-act flint in his voice modulated to a more supple quality. Still, to the end, Lee gave the impression of a singer yet to find his way into the psyche of this Spanish country boy suddenly caught up in a fatal attraction.

The expressive arc of Goeldner’s vocal performance continued to rise through Carmen’s fateful tarot reading in the mountain darkness of Act III, that insistent prophecy of death as she turns up card after card. But in her long and dramatically precarious showdown with José in the opera’s grim dénouement – the crazed lover stalking his prey outside the bull ring much like the toreador Escamillo within – Goeldner’s singing never quite reached the pitch of supreme defiance that transcends even the words themselves.

The night’s real vocal successes belonged to soprano Elaine Alvarez as Micaela, whose ardent prayer of chaste devotion won a huge ovation, and Kyle Ketelsen as the strutting, virile toreador Escamillo. His bravura song of the bull fight brought bouquets of cheering from the house. Bizet’s intricate Act II quintet of brigands – Carmen, Frasquita (Jennifer Jakob), Mercédès (Emily Fons), Dancaïre (Paul Scholten) and Remendado (René Barbera) – was a delightful peak as well.

Lyric Opera’s choristers, notably the women, made Bizet’s generous music ring, and the pit ensemble — conducted by the Frenchman Alain Altinoglu in his Lyric debut — infused even the intermezzos with vibrant colors. At all points, Altinoglu’s well-considered tempos buoyed the opera’s ample joie de vivre and brought real weight to its darker side.

Robin Don’s naturalistic sets, especially the sun-drenched beiges of the opening village scene, still charm the eye a decade later. But either director Harry Silverstein or lighting designer Jason Brown should be sent to the stockade for the blatant, moment-freezing flood of red light apparently intended underscore a portentous look between our femme fatale and poor José.

And if Silverstein is innocent here, he’s as guilty as sin, in the final scene, for having folks on a promenade above the plaza toss flowers down upon Carmen at the instant of her doom. Not very verismo.

Through Oct. 29 and March 12-27, 2011. www.lyricopera.org. Call (312) 827-5600.

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.