In a season that so distant has included a world premiere and a rarity or two, Lyric Opera of Chicago has turned to the tried and true, offering a suitably if sometimes underwhelming revival of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” This legend of a libertine Roma woman who puts her sense of freedom over all else shocked audiences during its one thousand eight hundred seventy-five debut at Paris’ Opéra-Comique, but it's gone on to be one of the most beloved and frequently performed of all operas.
The huge draw here was the opportunity to look mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, one of the biggest stars to arrive out of the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric’s well-regarded apprentice program, in what's become a signature role for her. Bridges has all the attributes required to portray this magnetic femme fatale — the allure, fiery stage presence and, most important, a stunning voice at its prime, with ample power and beautiful, earthy timbres in her lower register. But somehow, her performance didn't totally click Saturday evening. Telling was Bridges’ get on Carmen’s large Act one entrance, when she sings the famed habanera, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Like is a Rebellious Bird).” This should be a showy, sultry moment that sets the stage for all that's to come, but here it comes off as strangely restrained.
Not helping matters is a dragging tempo, a problem that recurs a few more times later in the production and has to be laid at the feet of conductor Henrik Nánási. Also not helping are some of the clunky connections between the characters. At the finish of Act one, for example, when Don José, a naive soldier devoted to his mother and childhood sweetheart, Micaëla, suddenly falls under Carmen’s spell, the transition is unconvincing. Tenor Charles Castronovo provides number set-up for it, nothing to signal his character’s dramatic modify of heart.
The obsessive attraction between Don José and Carmen only becomes fully realized in Act four, when she's left him for the flashy toreador, Escamillo, and the two have a final lethal encounter. In what's one of the highlights of the production, Bridges and Castronovo create the looming danger and love-hate toxicity palpable, with a searing intensity that's sometimes lacking else. If Castronovo’s acting is limiting at times, he's a fine singer who capably handles the vocal demands of his role.
Making his Lyric debut, baritone Andrei Kymach, the two thousand nineteen first prize winner at the BBC Cardiff Singer of World Competition, brings the required swagger to the role of Escamillo, but he could go even bigger in Act two with the famed “Toreador Song.” One of the production’s standouts is soprano Golda Schultz, who's making her Lyric debut. Expect to look her again. With her fresh, dulcet voice, she poignantly conveys the innocence and steadfastness of Micaëla, drawing one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the night with her emotional Act three aria, when she tries to pry Don José away Carmen’s lure. Also deserving note are two current members of the Ryan Opera Middle who create the most of their tiny roles as Carmen’s friends: soprano Denis Vélez as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Katherine DeYoung as Mercédès. Some “Carmen” productions attempt to examine the themes of this legend through a socio-political lens, occasionally shifting the action to a different time and space in look for of relevance, while others sexualize it in ways that can go too far.
Director Marie Lambert-Le Bihan took a more straightforward approach here, maybe too straightforward, keeping the opera’s traditional 19th-century Spanish setting and focusing on just telling the story. While she did an effective work handling the bustling crowd scenes, it's tough not to wish, as suggested earlier, that the relationships between the main characters aren't more fully defined. She made of handsome scenery and costumes that Lyric first featured during its 1999-2000 season and has brought back two other times since. Particularly striking are designer Robin Don’s dramatic sets for the third act — two upwardly jutting outcroppings of simulated rock with a large, vivid moon floating in a V-shaped opening between the two.