Lyric Opera Updates CARMEN Review – Classic with Choreographer’s Touch

Lyric Opera CARMEN
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Choreography makes this Carmen Update Recommended

Director and Choreographer Rob Ashford’s dance-enlivened rendition of Carmen will likely forever change your expectations of what this most memorable of opera scores by Bizet should look like on the stage. The choreography alone makes Lyric’s Carmen a top pick.

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja WOWS

If a girl is gonna go for a guy with a deep woman problem, one can only hope that at least he packs the vocal power of this Carmen production’s Don José, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja.

While the other performers sing masterfully with the orchestra, here was the star whom the orchestra accompanied. Calleja’s voice amplifies the very same quality in Bizet’s score that grabs you with its first scintillating overture notes.

Crisp and clear, his voice summoned its first round of BRAVOs in an early scene when Don José brutishly throws Carmen on a table and follows with a sweet love song. It’s a moment when we see the troubled man that Bizet’s opera draws with psychological precision.

Lyric Opera brings in Russian Soprano as Carmen

The cast includes many other audience favorites. One can always count on Chicago’s Russian-born population to support classical music in all its forms, but they seemed to turn out for this opening in greater number. It’s likely that star soprano Ekaterina Gubanova who hails from Russia was a strong draw. Her voice is lovely, but for those of us who have the sizzling X-rated performances of divas Denyce Graves or Elina Garanča as Carmen in our mind’s eye, this seems a bit PG.

Other audience favorites to shortlist are Italian soprano as Eleonora Buratto as Micaëla and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the famed toreador Escamillo.

Lyric Opera CARMEN
Eleonora Buratto as Micaela Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Lyric Opera CARMEN
Christian Van Horn as Escamillo Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Lyric Opera CARMEN
Photo: Andrew Cioffi

Lyric Opera Chorus plus Chicago Children’s Choir

Yet again, the wonderful Lyric Chorus (Chorus Master Michael Black) has that Goldilocks just-so touch with every note. In this production, we also get to marvel at Josephine Lee’s ability to gather and unleash nascent triple threats of the Chicago Children’s Choir. This reviewer finds myself daydreaming of the day when I’ll open a future Lyric Opera program to read of a star’s first Lyric debut with this choir.

Most recognizable opera to popular audience

If your love of opera is driven by mainly music, how could Carmen possibly disappoint? As Jesse Gram, the most engaging Lyric Unlimited pre-performance lecturer we’ve heard to date, commented, “…’To be or not to be…’, “…Rosebud..’..and then ‘L’amour et un oiseau rebel..’ and the March of the Toreador..”. There are few cultural offerings that are so easily recognizable by a mere phrase, and Carmen, of all operas, makes the mark the most. Piccolo preludes to the children entering, English horn recounting the five chords of fate that presage Carmen’s end, and more—the music is so delightful that Lyric or any opera company just can’t go wrong.

Lyric Opera CARMEN
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Lyric Opera Experiments—for better or worse

Perhaps that makes experimentation with Carmen such low hanging fruit.

That said, the dropping of the many recitations into spoken dialogue was for this reviewer a constant spell breaker.

The reach for resonance with the themes of the Spanish Civil War as embodied by Carmen’s gypsy free spirit strikes as a bit of a reach and somewhat missing the gravitas of the Spanish Civil War as a first chapter in the fight against fascism. Yes, Picasso is a Spaniard and his epic work Guernica features a bull as a symbol of blood lust epitomized by bull fights. It strikes this reviewer that the better Picasso paintings to draw set inspiration from might be those in which the artist—who had a woman problem not unlike Carmen’s Don José—waxed more and more abstract and deforming when he depicted anything female.

Lyric Opera CARMEN
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

These are actually minor matters and quickly forgotten as soon as you see the bull come to life and dance, sometimes with toreador and sometimes solo, as the five chords that presage Carmen’s violent end are played by the orchestra. This is an unforgettable and compelling choreographic poem set to music that goes to your heart. How interesting too to see Ashford’s choreography echo the use of costume as prop—in this case, long flamenco dance style skirts— similar to works by Merce Cunningham, now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art.  


Though there were a few first performance disconnects by the dancers, as the entire cast, on opening night, there is clearly a LOT of talent in the dance corps assembled for this production (Shannon Alvis, Judson Emery, Alejandro Fonseca, Asley Elizabeth Hale, Shanna Heverly, Marissa Lynn Horton, Jeffrey B. Hover, Jr., Jessica Wolfrum Raun, Todd Rhoades, Abigail Simon, Malachi Squires, JP Tenuta)

Go for the music and flawless conducting by Harry Bicket. Go for the choreography.



Note:  An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.



Now through March 25.

Editor’s Note: The cast changes for performances March 16 – 25, including:

Conductor: Ainārs Rubikis

Carmen: Anita Rachvelishvili

Don José: Brandon Jovanovich

Lyric Opera CARMEN
Photo: Todd Rosenberg


Civic Opera House
20 North Wacker




Available on the web at or at 312-827-5600.


Photos: Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi

Lyric Opera CARMEN
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Amy Munice

About the Author:

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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