Brandon Jovanovich and Anita Rachvelishvili in Carmen. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

As the storms of winter yield to mild springtime, Chicago’s venerable Lyric Opera has rounded out the main part of its season with two tried and true revivals (only a late-season production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady remains). At first glance, standard repertoire may not make for exciting criticism these days. But casts are everything, and for these two tragic tales Lyric’s talent for assembling impressive performance rosters has reached lofty heights.           

Carmen has never been one of my favorites. I once even authored an article about people who do not like it and why. But Rob Ashford’s new production, mounted jointly with Houston Grand Opera, neatly cuts out most of the overdone espagnolerie and delivers raw drama—the stuff opera is made of. Vaguely updated to the time of the Spanish Civil War (as so many Carmens now are) and yet refreshingly free of political baggage, the more modern stylings (sets by David Rockwell) were serviceable without too much distraction. Ashford’s own choreography added an unusually lithe expression to sequences that can become too bogged down in “atmosphere.” Particularly original was the emergence of male dancers from under the long trains of their female counterparts during the opening music of Act IV.

A split cast yielded the title role at this performance (March 16) to the stunning Lyric Opera debut of the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (who is a friend of the reviewer), for whom Carmen was a breakout part when she filled in for another artist to make her surprise debut at La Scala. Summoning smoky, sultry tones, she mastered Carmen’s music so impeccably that she arguably stands as the most exciting dramatic mezzo-soprano singing before the public today. Rachvelishvili’s vocal performance was no less impressive than her astonishingly original delivery of the part’s dramatic demands. This is a Carmen in conflict—not the fickle tease or clichéd femme fatale we almost always see—but rather a vivid anti-heroine torn between her professed desire for freedom and her feelings for Don José, which are both real and deep. The character’s cutting lines and vicious behavior are set in an alluring relief that masks a hidden vulnerability few performers ever really explore. When José’s own forgotten amour Micaëla wrenches him out of his conflict with Carmen and her new lover, the toreador Escamillo, the gypsy seductress collapses in laughter at his temper but then bursts into revealing sobs after he departs.

Rachvelishvili was wisely partnered with the robust tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who likewise offered an unusual reading of the hapless Don José. Normally portrayed as a proud man who is suddenly moved to a climactic crime of passion, here Jovanovich played Don José as a ridiculous figure—certainly the first Don José I have ever heard anyone laugh at. The ardor of the vocal part does not immediately suggest this characterization, but close attention to his words and actions does reinforce the interpretation that Carmen’s spurned lover is at heart a pathetic milksop whose puerile temperament, petty jealousy, and sheer neediness drive her away more forcefully than anything capricious in her psyche. I wondered what would have happened if he had just ignored her. Jovanovich’s French was not always convincing, but his clarion tones and muscular ascents compensated amply. Christian Van Horn’s swaggering Escamillo tended toward caricature, but he was a real enough rival to keep the action moving.

It is usual to end reviews of Carmen with a perfunctory note on the part of Micaëla, the “good girl” no one really cares about, who seems forever condemned to inhabit the shadows of the stronger characters around her. In another stunning Lyric debut, however, the rising soprano Eleonora Buratto employed crystal clear tonality to render this otherwise forgettable character something more than memorable. Indeed, she was the only Micaëla to whom I ever recall having paid much attention. Bringing all parts together, the young Latvian conductor Ainars Rubikis led a well-paced performance that allowed his stars to shine.

Audiences who craved still more murderous passion returned the following evening for Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the classic Russian tale by Alexander Pushkin of a bored young man who, in the vein of many spoiled anti-heroes of literary history—Byron’s Childe Harold, Huysmans’s des Esseintes, Wilde’s Dorian Gray—loses himself in the pointlessness of his own existence. After spurning the awkward but passionate Tatyana, he provokes a needless quarrel with his overemotional best friend Lensky and then slays him in a completely avoidable duel. Later he returns to find Tatyana more mature, more sophisticated, and, of course, married. Only then does he fall for her, merely to have her reject him despite still confessing to love him, too.

A true Childe Harold would not take more than a few minutes to shrug off this disappointing bout of nostalgia and dismay. Lyric’s continuing use of Robert Carsen’s sparse production—once shared with the Metropolitan Opera, where it has now been overtaken by Deborah Warner’s paler effort—succeeds in making the story almost believable, however. Nineteenth-century props and costumes deliver the correct milieu. Carsen’s controversial decision to remove the walls strips the characters of their internality and leaves them exposed for our delectation. In the first two acts the central action is surrounded by a stage covered with dead leaves, suggesting that Onegin, like des Esseintes, feels he is in the October of his sensations. Within the desiccated circle, we find Lensky’s futile ardor, Tatyana’s unrequited passion, and best of all, Onegin’s vicissitudes swirling in a maelstrom of rising dramatic tension. Once we reach the tragic denouements—the duel in which Onegin kills Lenksy and the fateful post-ball reunion at which Tatyana delivers his comeuppance—the sets shift into a competition of warm and cool colors, projected to reflect the extremities of mood and feeling.

In an age when Dmitri Hvorostovsky has left stage productions for health reasons, Lyric was fortunate to cast the solid Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecen in the title role. Fearless command of Onegin’s lines complemented a highly nuanced delivery that was confident rather than arrogant, proud rather than supercilious, frustrated rather than loathsome. His Tatyana fell to the talented soprano Ana Maria Martinez. She sang well and acted the part’s girlish awkwardness in almost heartbreaking relief, but she never seemed quite at home. Occasionally, Martinez’s voice lacked the full-bodied qualities that Tatyana really needs to resonate with an emotionally engaged audience. Warner’s Met production returns with Anna Netrebko in the role later this season, so the coincidence may be a touch unfortunate for those willing to submit to two-hour flights in narrow Embraer jets to enjoy the opera in both cities. The reliable American tenor Charles Castronovo took on Lensky. His passion was almost alarmingly present, but his vocal effort did not rise to the same level as the other two principals. Of more solid voice was Dmitry Belosselskiy’s stentorian Prince Gremin, Tatyana’s plodding eventual husband. One often feels sympathy for this character, a noble and contented older man who seems pitiably unaware that his wife does not truly love him, but Belosselskiy wisely did not perform to court such sympathy. His matter-of-fact delivery reminded us of just how real such situations can truly be.

Alejo Perez conducted a reasonable performance but never really immersed the orchestra in the subtle intensity of Tchaikovsky’s score. Still, the effort was well worth the visit, even if some of the surtitles oversimplified the libretto as adapted from Pushkin’s gorgeously poetic verse. Notably, it was a disappointment to hear Lensky’s line, “To me you are joy and suffering” rendered as, “You are everything I am looking for”—as though he were a puppy-eyed high-school student in suburban Chicago rather than an ardent poet indulging his voluptuous passions in the soulful steppes of Russia.

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