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Bad girls, brigadiers, and bullfights

The Lyric Opera was packed to the rafters with patrons twinkling with sequins for opening night of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, with libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Premiered in Paris to moral scandal in 1875, the tragic opera, based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, about a bohémienne and her fatal seduction of a brigadier, was admired by composers including Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Massenet, and Wagner, and has surely launched a thousand ice dancing routines. Every bit of flash and fire a midwest miserable with an insipid frost could conjure or desire of a mythic Mediterranean is amply present in the Lyric’s lavish production (conducted by Henrik Nánási, directed by Marie Lambert-Le Bihan, with set design by Robin Don and costumes by Robert Perdziola). 

There is something like a Greek tragedy to Carmen. Like a bullfight, we know how it ends—but here we are, attendant with anticipation for the ritual sacrifice.

Through 4/7: Wed 3/15 and Sun 3/19 2 PM, Wed 3/22 7 PM, Sat 3/25 7:30 PM, Thu 3/30 and Sun 4/2 2 PM, Fri 4/7 7 PM; audio description Sun 3/19, Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker, 312-857-5600, lyricopera.org. $60-$350. In French with English supertitles.

After an overture resplendent with pomp and pageantry, intertwined with a soft, eerie melody that foreshadows disaster, the lights burst on to reveal a monochrome scene in khaki. An army of indistinguishable men lurk in boredom in Seville—briefly—before amusement arrives in the form of a young woman dressed in peacock blue: Micaëla (soprano Golda Schultz), who has traveled alone from the countryside with only a small satchel slung over her shoulder. In heartstoppingly lustrous tones she beseeches them for assistance to find the brigadier Don José. Like ravening wolves to Red Riding Hood, they invite her in—she gets away only because she’s quick.

Just as quickly a band of winsome urchins (Uniting Voices Chicago, directed by Josephine Lee) fills the stage to cheer on the changing of the guard. (They’re adorable, brilliant, and committed—yes, kids! Yes, choralography!) It must be noted that this stage can hold a lot of people, and throughout this production the evocation of the crowd is a central contrast to its outsized protagonists. Hordes. Masses. Mobs. Fifty? A hundred and fifty? Seeing them is simultaneously impressive and intimidating, in the way that arenas and murmurations and battalions are, a form of order at any moment threatening to erupt into chaos. 

Next to be numerous are the cigarette factory girls, who are smoking on their break. Speaking of smoking, at last enters Carmen (mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges), with a bloodred sash like a bloodred gash across her hips. She drops her burning cigarette from the balcony and slinks into the Habanera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”), voice smoky from tobacco and late nights of being evil, and all the men salivate for her. The sorceress makes a rose bloom from the space between her bosoms—and you just know this rose has thorns—then tosses it near the feet of Don José (tenor Charles Castronovo) with the contempt of a cat spitting. L’amour!

But Don José is excited to see his homegirl Micaëla and wants to hear how his ma is doing (“Parle-moi de ma mère”). And Micaëla of the glistening voice sounds radiant next to the dark Carmen, who blares like a nasty trumpet—who wouldn’t want to hear her talk of village life? Not Carmen and some dozens of cigarette girls screaming because Carmen STABBED a bitch. And so what if she did? 

Anyway, they arrest her, and somehow it’s sexy. Carmen playfully swats Don José with the twine they handcuffed her with and promises they’ll go drinking and dancing in some bar if he lets her go, and like a lovesick fool, of course he does. Intermission.

In act two, it turns out Carmen wasn’t lying; there is a bar, and it is hopping with dancers and conspirators. (The choreography by Stephanie Martinez has a stylized 90s dance club vibe, which seems to have no context.) Escamillo (baritone Andrei Kymach), a toreador, flounces in with his entourage and sings a song about the valor of bullfighting (which, as the program note points out, is intentionally trashy—this portrayal goes a step further in rendering Escamillo both flat in key and character, bombastic as a massive organ). 

Here, unlike at the factory, Carmen has friends, Frasquita (soprano Denis Vélez) and Mercédès (mezzo-soprano Katherine DeYoung), and all of them are wanted for a smuggling operation masterminded by Dancaïre (baritone Laureano Quant) and Remendado (tenor Ryan Capozzo). A proper bout of trickery demands a woman’s touch—they all agree, and we know they’ll get away with it because any quintet that can keep up with this brisk and fabulous complexity of harmonizing can confound the average customs officer. But Carmen is out, because Don José is out—out on parole, that is, for the time he served for letting her fly. 

Unfortunately Don José’s time in prison has taught him nothing about a system that relies on incarceration as a means of reinforcing a racist and capitalist regime, because when a bugle sounds the retreat as Carmen gives him a private and personal expression of her spirit in song and dance, he insists on leaving for roll call. Don José’s mindless obeisance to the oppressive hand and horn of the patriarchy infuriates Carmen, who mocks him with “taratatas” until he tries to backhand her across the face. But after they’ve decided they hate each other, an officer, Zuniga (bass Wm. Clay Thompson), stumbles in drunk and tries to get with Carmen, which makes Don José so jealous that he smacks his superior. Now he’s a villain like Carmen, and there’s no choice but to become smugglers—together! L’amour! (intermission!)

Act three takes place in the mountains on a set of cliffs lit by a massive slice of moon that, over the course of the act, moves imperceptibly slowly to reveal our nearest and most beloved satellite waxing gibbous and drifting across an otherwise impassive sky. In the shadows of this astonishing vision of romantic sublimity, Don José misses his mama. Which is pathetic, says Carmen, and he really is. But you know who’s not pathetic? Micaëla, our God-fearing village girl, who has somehow made it to the top of this mountain all by her darn self—in the same blue dress, with nothing but ye olde trusty satchel. For her pains, she gets a soaring aria (“Je dis que rien m’epouvante”), in which she declares Carmen her enemy, instead of understanding that they are both products of a system that operates by division, which could be overturned if they could mutually recognize and respect their alternative power. 

But before they have time to attain enlightenment and smash the patriarchy, enter Escamillo upon what has to be the most happening mountaintop on the Iberian Peninsula. Because Escamillo and Don José are toxically masculine, they have a knife fight and blame Carmen for it. Carmen and Co. break the fight up by rushing in with rifles. Escamillo gloats that Carmen saved him, then takes off, singing his infernal song. Don José, whose masculinity has been wounded by Carmen’s raising a rifle to his puny knife, grabs her by the hair and tells her that he’d rather die than leave her (in peace). But he has to go because, as it happens, Mama José is dying (as Micaëla has scaled this godforsaken mountain to relate), but he will be back. L’amour.

At last, full circle, Seville. Act four: a parade, because everyone, regardless of their status with the law, is in town for a bullfight. The kids are back, and they’re furiously waving flyers in a frenzy for the fiesta—hello, kids! The players of the bullfight process in splendor—the banderilleros, the picadors, and finally, Escamillo, followed by Carmen, who is laced and beruffled in a mantilla and sevillana in black with gold sparkles—she’s Escamillo’s girl now (for about six months, he figures). Her girls tell her that Don José is in town, but rather than run, when the rest retreat into the arena, she stays behind. The doors come down, sealing them out, and the bareness of the stage seems to expand the silence of their last confrontation, though the occasional roar from the distant crowd breaks through. We know what happens next, and when it does, it is horrible to see, a vivid and audacious life stilled by the smallest of men. La mort.

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