Lyric Opera

Opera companies in Chicago have often had trouble surviving. The Civic Opera fell victim to economic Darwinism during the Depression. Later, during the latter part of the tenure of the late Carol Fox, Lyric managed to get itself into enough financial trouble that at one point in the early 80s the season was reduced to only five operas. After Ardis Krainik succeeded Fox, the economic picture improved greatly; Lyric now not only enjoys record subscription levels, but has also managed to amass an endowment. The season now includes eight operas and almost 70 performances. However, what the Lyric has gained in quantity it has sometimes lost in quality. This is most noticeable in the late-season performances.

This year all but two of Lyric’s Carmen performances have come after Christmas, and the show suffers from the corner cutting and the predominantly lighter-weight casting that have become familiar in the postholiday season. A revival of the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production seen here in 1984 (don’t look for new productions at this time of year) would seem to hold promise. Some of that promise is realized, but much is not.

The only truly successful opera written by Bizet, Carmen, despite carping from Parisian critics at the outset, entered the repertory shortly after its premiere and has remained there ever since. The story of the wicked, fatalistic Gypsy girl and her romance with Jose (presented rather sympathetically in the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, but a thoroughgoing cad in the novel by Prosper Merimee) has fascinated opera audiences for more than a century. One of the opera’s earlier exponents was Friedrich Nietzsche, who, in an intellectual rebellion against Wagner, wanted to distance himself from the doctrines of the Bayreuth blusterer.

But if Nietzsche wanted to escape the influence of his onetime mentor, Carmen was a strange opera to champion, for in a number of ways it conforms to the dictates of Wagnerian music drama. Few “set piece” numbers intrude, and the action and music for the most part form a seamless whole–just as Wagner advocated. Musical numbers such as the “Habanera” in act one and Carmen’s dances in act two are simply a logical part of the dramatic action. Only occasionally does Bizet fall prey to some of the musical vulgarities so prevalent in 19th-century French opera, most notably in the witless second-act quintet featuring Carmen, her two sidekicks, and the two smugglers. And the character of Micaela, the sweet girl from Jose’s hometown, is somewhat trite, even though she is necessary to the development of the drama. Though none of the characters is either mythic or monumental, this does not exclude Carmen from the roster of music dramas. Still, the Wagnerisms in this work are in the way the drama is put together, not in the style of the music.

It is difficult to discuss the Lyric run of Carmen because so far every show has been significantly different. Lyric patrons have heard a substitute Carmen from opening night on, and by the fifth performance they had seen two different Joses and three different Micaelas. While some of the weaknesses in casting were aggravated by the cancellation of Tatiana Troyanos, Lyric management has been desultory about rectifying them. Emily Golden, originally scheduled to sing the title role for the student matinees only, is doing the whole run. Her voice is pleasant but a bit light for Carmen. More important, she is just too clean-cut to be a convincing Carmen, who should be more like the raunchy Gypsy portrayed in the ’84 productions by Alicia Nafe. Although tenor Neil Shicoff turned in a number of unimpressive performances during his early engagements at Lyric, his voice has gotten richer and is enormously more powerful than it was about ten years ago. In the role of Jose, he is easily the dominating vocal talent of this production. Richard Cowan was disappointing as the bombastic matador Escamillo because he lacks the power both dramatically and vocally to carry off this bravura role. Lucia Mazzaria-Scandiuzzi–listed in the Lyric program notes as “the Freni of the ’80’s”–fled back to Italy after her first performance as Micaela, pleading illness, which was perhaps a reaction to bad reviews. Nikki Li Hartliep took over for her and turned in two performances, at least one of them thoroughly dull. More recently the role has been sung by Cynthia Lawrence, by several accounts better than either of the big guns that preceded her.

The situation becomes positively dismal in the pit. Eduardo Mata’s shocking ineptitude in conducting the Lyric Orchestra puts his performance among the three worst I have ever heard at Lyric, ranking right up there with Richard Cassilly’s hopeless portrayal of Tannhauser two seasons back and Brenda Roberts’s crash-and-burn attempt to sing Elektra in ’75. Under Mata’s baton the orchestra seemed to lose its professional edge, acquiring the kind of loose, uncoordinated, tentative sound that might be expected from a small regional company’s orchestra.

The Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production revived for this run is as impressive now as it was six years ago. Ponnelle’s dark view fits well with this gloomy story, but it’s disturbing that he seems to be directing this production from beyond the grave. To the best of my recollection, every gesture, every movement, every shout is being delivered in the same way as in ’84. The production reminds one of nothing so much as some of the choreography of Petipa, which became codified and endured for decades. In contemporary operatic production, the cult of the director has now become so powerful that it seems to be a kind of sacrilege to alter any detail–even when the director has made an obvious blunder, such as introducing the solitary boy as witness to Carmen’s murder at the end of act four. Not only will such fealty stifle creativity onstage but, in view of the apparent inability of the late 20th century to add works to the repertoire, it could begin to kill the last living part of opera production, the staging.

The unavoidable impression is that Lyric management knows that it can sell out as many performances of Carmen as it can mount, and that it simply doesn’t care much that the production could have been and should have been much better.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.