Review: Krasteva, Jovanovich Sizzle in Chicago “Carmen” – Lyric Opera, March 15, 2011

Lyric Opera scheduled two runs of Bizet’s “Carmen” for its 2010-2011 season, in October and in March. The March performances paired the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva as Carmen with American tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Don Jose. At this stage of their careers, both assignments are signature roles for the two artists.

I have previously remarked on the extraordinary wealth of world class singers from Bulgaria, whose entire nation has a smaller population than Metropolitan Chicago (see Power Verdi: Stoyanov, Valayre Mesmerizing in Berlin Staatsoper “Macbeth” – April 24, 2009.) Krasteva, much of whose work takes place at the Vienna Staatsoper, is unfamiliar to most American audiences. Making her first appearance in Chicago in this run of performanes, she displayed a formidable mezzo voice, showing both power and comfort in the lower part of her register.

To be a great Carmen, however, one needs to be not only an accomplished singer, but a great actress. Able to play off the superb acting skills of the Don Jose of Brandon Jovanovich and the Escamillo of Kyle Ketelsen, she drew a portrait of an exotic, erotic woman, whose seeming self-assuredness masks an emotional vulnerability.

[Below: Nadia Krasteva as Carmen; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Jovanovich, who hails from the Northern border state of Montana, is becoming associated with several of the roles in which the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers excelled – besides Don Jose, the title role of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”, Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” and Sergei in Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” – meaty parts in which a large voiced dramatic tenor with intelligent acting skills can shine. (He will perform Siegmund and Sergei at the San Francisco Opera respectively this summer and a subsequent season. For my recent interview with him, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich.)

Teamed with a great actress, as he has been with Patricia Racette (see The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007 and Gavanelli, Racette, Jovanovich In Rousing “Tabarro” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 2009) and Kelly Kaduce (see Kaduce’s Incandescent Cio Cio San, Jovanovich’s Injudicious Pinkerton, Emblazon Blakeley’s “Butterfly” – Santa Fe Opera, July 16, 2010), Jovanovich shows an affinity to the dramatic possibilities of the tenor leads in Puccini’s music dramas.

But Bizet has drawn a much deeper character in the conflicted Don Jose than Puccini created in Pinkerton or “Tabarro’s” Luigi. Jovanovich’s Jose is the believable mama’s boy, emotionally committed to a strait and narrow life with Micaela of whom his mother approves, but with a dark side that Carmen detects and intends to unleash. It is Jose’s dark side with whom she is in love, just as Micaela is attracted to his goodness.

[Below: Carmen (Nadia Krasteva) suggests that if she can escape, Don Jose (Brandon Jovanovich) might wish to join her later at Lillas Pastia’s tavern; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

The revival stage director, Harry Silverstein, whose work on Floyd’s “Susannah” (see Opera Pacific’s Brilliant “Susannah” – May 14, 2008) and Puccini’s “La Boheme” (see The Luisotti “Boheme” in San Francisco – November 22, 2008) I have admired, blocked the stage action to assure the maximization of the theatrical skills of Jovanovich and Krasteva.

Don Jose sits whittling at stage left, the only man on the crowded stage that ignores Carmen and the cigarette factory women. As she sings the “Habanera” she comes up from the landing behind him and places her bare leg over his shoulder.

When, after she is arrested for fighting and Jose is ordered to guard her, since her hands are bound behind her, she grabs her skirt with her teeth and pulls it up to tempt Jose. Alone with him in the tavern’s after hours, she taunts him until she melts his caution about the career consequences of becoming AWOL on his very first night out of jail. Soon they are on top of the table, he physically devouring her in a passionate embrace.

One can see in Jose’s face at every moment, the confusion, as well as the capitulation to Carmen’s will and fatal commitment that he makes to her. Through each of the acts, Krasteva and Jovanovich show us the intense relationship between these two souls, who were fated to intense love and mutual destruction.

The Real and Surreal

The sets were Scottish production designer Robin Don’s from Lyric’s 1999-2000 season, that have been revived previously only in the 2005-06 season.  The sets for the first and second acts use a unit structure that reappears in the fourth act.

Those sets have a walkway on a second story above a curving wall incorporating tall Roman arches.The first two acts, as well as the third act smuggler’s mountain hideaway – not so hidden that all four principals in the opera cannot find it, the only act in which they all appear – are presented in a naturalistic style.

Except for the moment in the first act where all action is frozen that appears, as in other productions, at the most prominent sounding of the “fate motive”, surreality is reserved for the denouement, where the archway doors close, to isolate Carmen and Don Jose in stage center, as if in a bull-ring, with a row of spectators on the second floor walkway who throw flowers to Don Jose at the time of the kill.

[Below: the first act sets for “Carmen”, the soldiers assembled in formation in the center, with the curved staircase at left leading to the tobacco factory; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

With a world class Carmen and Don Jose, the opera should work dramatically, but the other two principals have both Bizet’s inspired music to sing and provide the “other man” and “other woman” with dramatic situations that propel the action towards the final result.

Nicole Cabell was a secure Micaela, not only showing the bravery and resourcefulness of the character, but singing her first act duets with Jovanovich and her great third act aria with distinction. Her Micaela follows another distinguished performance in a Bizet opera in Chicago –  Leila (see my review at Eyecatching, Mellifluous “Pearl Fishers” at Lyric Opera – October 16, 2008.)

[Below: Micaela (Nicole Cabell) tells Don Jose (Brandon Jovanovich) of his mother’s wish that the two of them marry; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

I had commented on Kyle Ketelsen’s impressive Escamillo in San Francisco (Halevy Triumphs in Ponnelle “Carmen” – S. F. December 3, 2006), as well as fine perfomances in Chicago as Mephistopheles (Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009) and Figaro (Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010).

Arriving in a torchlight parade of his followers, Ketelsen’s Escamillo delivered with a rousing second act Toreador Song, followed by aggressive acting in the third interchange with Jovanovich’s Jose in the smuggler’s hideaway, and an affecting fourth act love duet with Krasteva’s Carmen. Also important for the opera’s theatricality, Ketelsen cut a fine figure in the toreador’s suit of lights.

[Below: Escamillo (Kyle Ketelsen) charms Lillas Pastia’s clientele with the excitement he feels when fighting in the bull ring; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera.]

Others in the cast were Carmen’s outlaw associates in the famous second act Quintet, Paul Scholten as Duncaire and Rene Barbera as Remendado, Jennifer Jakob as Frasquita and Emily Fons as Mercedes.

Indicative of just how absorbing the familiar scenes in this most popular of French operas can be, Fons’ Mercedes received a big laugh from the audience, when in the fortune-telling card scene, her cards tell her that an elderly husband she forsees will marry her, die suddenly and makes her a wealthy widow.

[Below: Robin Don’s third act sets for “Carmen”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Also in the cast was Craig Irvin as Zuniga and Paul La Rosa as Morales. The conductor was French conductor Alain Altinoglu. Robert Perdziola was the costume designer.