Bizet’s “Carmen” is the one opera that everybody knows, even those who have never been in an opera house. Thanks to countless parodies, cartoons, sitcoms, plays, movies, commercials and the like, its infectious melodies bring an instant nod of recognition from even the greenest of operatic novices. However jaded seasoned opera lovers may be to the advances of the gypsy temptress, it is always a pleasure to be alongside of those who are experiencing the work live for the first time. The good news is that the reigning Carmen of our time, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, is even more sensual, trim and darker in her timbre than her last outing here in the role five years ago. Despite a slightly under-pitch “Habanera” and some occasional lack of vocal focus, her complete embodiment of the femme fatale more than compensates. Graves is worth the price of the show alone, and when she sexily swaggers around those she is seducing, she has the entire audience eating out of her hand. That said, her two competing lovers—the soldier Don José, sung by tenor Neil Shicoff, and the bullfighter Escamillo, sung by bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo—are so lifeless and wimpy in this production that, as one of Lyric’s own staff members so eloquently put it during a break, “this Carmen could unleash severe whoop ass on both those guys put together.” If either had the goods vocally, such miscasting might be overlooked, but Shicoff’s strained timbre on a good day is barely tolerable, and he was having such a bad day at the performance that I heard that the Lyric felt compelled to announce mid-performance that he still had the laryngitis that had forced him to cancel opening night. Meanwhile, D’Arcangelo was so tentative in the lower notes of the famous “Toreador” Song that they were barely audible. Not helping matters were the slow tempos chosen by conductor Sir Andrew Davis, who is conducting his first-ever “Carmen” seemingly without a clear musical conception of the work’s structure and without grasping its sometimes surprisingly tricky Spanish-flavored rhythms. Equally puzzling is Davis’ decision to use recitatives written by another composer rather than simply speak such lines as Bizet originally intended, and a bizarre staging which gives us no less than two executions of the same character, an event not part of the libretto and awkwardly superimposed over the prologue and finale. Lyric has plenty of time to hopefully work at least some of these bugs out, as the work returns in March after its fall run. (Dennis Polkow)
This production is now closed.