Chicago Opera Theater Presents CARMEN Review — A Psychologically-Driven Concert

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An enormous cheer went up at the Harris Theatre when Jamie Barton sang her rendition of Carmen’s famous habanera song. For most people at the second performance of Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Carmen, it was the first aria they’d heard live in eighteen months.

A Working-Class Tragedy

Two highly-visibly queer performers are in the lead roles. A butch-punk Barton wears a sheer shirt and black bra emphasizing her full figure as precisely what makes her irresistible. Blythe performs Don José in her drag king persona, which includes a tenor vocal range. This Don José is a bit older, not wiser-- more worn down and desperate, and not someone we get the feeling has ever really been fully welcome among his peers or respected by anybody.

There’s plenty of intrigue to be found in low places in Carmen. The story follows Don José falling in love with irresistible Carmen, and how he deteriorates emotionally when she becomes infatuated with a flashy bullfighter Escamillo (Michael Sumuel).

Chicago Opera Theater Posits a Queer Reimagining

Georges Bizet’s Carmen is, as Music Director Yankovskaya remarks, unusual in several regards, including its optional spoken or recitative dialogue and the amount of time it spends on a realistic psychological examination of characters who are far outside conventional tragedies. COT’s concert production omits the chorus, along with the sumptuous setting and costume designs usually associated the genre.  Although the Harris Theater is a large space, this concert had a chamber-atmosphere.

Lovely Music that Doesn’t Mask a Brutal Story

For this reviewer, it was the first time Carmen the character seemed like a person who might actually exist instead of just a symbol, victim, or femme fatale, and that her habanera had a real undercurrent of willful menace. And Barton’s unique stage presence, along with the technical mastery with which she wielded her enormous mezzo voice, were a reminder of live performance’s unique pleasures.

Most operas can be reasonably summed up as grown people who should know better destroying themselves and each other with dramatic behavior, but even the more realistic operas tend to be shorter or have more stylized dialogue.  Here though, under the direction of Joachim Schamberger and with Lidiya Yankovskaya conducting, COT’s Carmen in concert is a character study that centers alternative voices and creates a context in which the lyrics can be heard with a fresh, more focused perspective.  For fans of Carmen, like this reviewer,  Yankovskaya’s conducting offered expertly performed well-known songs with fresh inspiration.


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This production is now over.  For information on other upcoming COT productions, visit the Chicago Opera Theater website.

Note: Picture this Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago


Carmen: Jamie Barton
Don José: Stephanie Blythe as Blythely Oratonio
Escamillo: Michael Sumuel
Micaëla: Kimberly E. Jones
Zuniga: Brandon Cedel
Frasquita: Rachel Blaustein
Mercédès: Leah Dexter
Le Dancaïre: Evan Bravos
Le Remendado: Lunga Eric Hallam


Composer: Georges Bizet
Librettist: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

Conductor: Lidiya Yankovskaya
Director: Joachim Schamberger

Lighting Designer: David Lee Bradke

Photos:  Michael Brosilow

This story has been added to the Picture This Post roundup article on OPERAS WE LOVE.
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Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis

About the Author: Jacob Davis

Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.

Click here to find more Picture This Post articles by Jacob Davis.

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