Mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges was an amazing talent when she was studying at the Ryan Center a decade ago. It was obvious she was going to have a major career and that has come to pass.
Bridges is making a homecoming of sorts with an iconic role that is becoming her signature, Carmen. Vocally and dramatically, it is ideally suited for her. Her “Habanera” of Act I was surprisingly understated on opening night, almost as if Carmen were toying with Don José (tenor Charles Castronovo)—and us—that we haven’t seen anything yet. This is a Carmen who works her charms on her own terms. The real seduction is when José is in a position to help her escape. Bridges never lets us forget that Carmen, above all, is a survivor in a brutal world who can give as much as she can take. It is hard to imagine most Carmens slashing a co-worker as a plot point, but the way Bridges sneaks in sucker punches among the crowd makes us believe it.
Usually “Carmen” is played as a love story but it is a refreshing take that Bridges makes us wonder if her passion is at the disposal of merely having to get by. While Don José is useful, Carmen will love him. When Escamillo (baritone Andrei Kymach in his Lyric debut) can be useful, Carmen shifts gears. Where is her heart? We never know for sure. Does she know? Can she afford to know? That puts a lot on Don José and Castronovo does not disappoint. He is in love with Carmen, and will do anything to possess her. He deserts his post to be with her, becomes a criminal. When she tries to move on, Don José cannot allow it. Their love duets are passionate but there is even more passion when José refuses to let Carmen go. Carmen has nothing to lose as her life has always been hanging by a thread in any case. (It is a fascinating study in the malignancy of MeToo.)
Although Carmen has often been the property of great African American singers, I can’t recall a Micaëla (South African soprano Golda Schultz in her Lyric debut) also being Black. The template has been that Micaëla is the girl Mom wants José to marry and Carmen the seductive temptress who interferes, with race often an implicit element; it is revealing to have it neutralized.
“Carmen” is a spectacle, of course, and the Lyric Opera Chorus sounded the part, and director Marie Lambert-Le Bihan also called upon the chorus to act the part as well. Conductor Henrik Nánási brought out the color and nuance of Bizet’s score.
“Carmen” at Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker, lyricopera.org. Through April 7.