Lyric Opera’s sturdy “Carmen” dealt a fatal card by singer’s cancellation

October 14, 2010

Katharine Goeldner and Yonghoon Lee in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's "Carmen." Photo: Dan Rest.

Those listening to Wednesday’s live broadcast of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Carmen heard a well sung and compelling performance that no doubt left some wondering what accounted for the tepid response of the opening-night audience.

But opera, of course, is a complex art form, equal parts theater as much as singing. The vocal side was largely well served at Wednesday’s opening performance, particularly by Yonghoon Lee who made an impressive company debut as Don Jose. But with a low-voltage performance by Katharine Goeldner in the title role of the gypsy temptress, the dramatic spark was mostly nonexistent making for a very long and largely uninvolving night of Bizet.

Goeldner was not intended to be the first-string Carmen of these fall performances. When Kate Aldrich bowed out last week due to side effects of her pregnancy, the company was forced to scramble for a replacement. Goeldner, already on hand to sing the final Carmen matinee, was pressed into service for the entire autumn run.

Vocally, the American mezzo-soprano proved a serviceable anti-heroine, possessed of an ample voice and did nearly all that was expected of her. Goeldner put across a worthy Habanera, though she seemed to have difficulty getting around the fast corners of the Chanson boheme.

But the role of the heartless gypsy who leads the soldier Don Jose to destruction requires much more than admirable vocalism: a fiery intensity, sexual allure, dramatic edge and sense of danger. Quite frankly, Goeldner brought none of these to the table Wednesday night.

Hers was a generalized, old-fashioned performance, limited to a few stock gestures and lacking the vitality and detailed characterization needed to make this fascinating creature come to life. All the big moments were passably sung but woefully under-energized and lacking in dramatic impact from her card-reading scene and Act 2 confrontation with Don Jose to the climactic finale outside the bullring. This kind of by-the-numbers Carmen would have passed muster a few decades ago but now seems tired and dated, with Goeldner’s mature gypsy unlikely to send her spurned lover over the edge into madness and ruin.

That lack of a strong central figure is unfortunate because the Lyric has fielded an otherwise worthy cast and sturdy production.

Making his Lyric debut as the tortured Don Jose is Yonghoon Lee. The South Korean tenor clearly is a young singer on the rise with dates this season at the Met, La Scala and Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Lee possesses an imposing instrument with power, amplitude and refinement. His French needs work and his tone turns rather husky in the lower register, but Lee’s Flower aria was the undisputed high point of the evening—impassioned, sensitively sung and deeply felt, earning him the one enthusiastic ovation of the night.

Even with zero chemistry with Goeldner’s Carmen, Lee managed to inject some dramatic punch into the proceedings, the tenor fiery in Act 2 and making Don Jose’s desperation in the final scene fully believable. This is a singer to watch.

Elaine Alvarez is Micaela, in her first Lyric appearance since her headline-making save of the company’s La Boheme three years ago, replacing Angela Gheorghiu, when the latter was sacked for her diva antics.

The Cuban-American soprano proved a consistently charming presence as the good girl. Her Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante could have used a smoother legato, yet Alvarez’s soprano blended fluently with Lee in a lovely Act 1 duet.

As Escamillo, Kyle Ketelsen started off with a shaky first verse of his Toreador song but quickly recovered. The Lyric’s go-to bass-baritone sang with customary refinement and dramatic point, Ketelsen nicely capturing the bullfighter’s irony and aristocratic disdain in a role often played for macho bluster.

A pair of first-year Ryan Center singers proved stellar as Carmen’s cohorts. As Frasquita, Jennifer Jakob’s soprano soared in the ensembles and Emily Fons—a future Carmen in the making—was an alluring and vocally bounteous Mercedes. Is it possible for this gifted young mezzo to take over the title role in a couple fall performances?

Paul Scholten and Rene Barbera were a characterful duo of smugglers, more richly sung than usual, with Paul La Rosa, a fine Morales.

Once again Donald Nally’s Lyric Opera Chorus was terrific, the women having great fun as the slatternly band of cigarette girls. The Chicago Children’s Choir, well drilled by Josephine Lee, were an engaging and notably well sung group of street urchins.

Robin Don’s quasi-unit set, first seen in 1999-2000 with Denyce Graves in the title role, is still handsome and effective. The earth-toned square paints a sun-dappled Seville, and the towering rock-walled crevice is an evocative mountain lair for the smugglers. Director Harry Silverstein directed traffic capably if not always imaginatively with too much stand-and-deliver at the footlights.

In addition to having impressive proto-Dudamel hair, conductor Alain Altinoglu made an outstanding house debut. After some sluggish tempos in the opening choruses, the French conductor drew consistently vital and elegant playing from the orchestra, a few wind mishaps apart. With a conjurer’s baton technique that is a sight to behold, Altinoglu deserves a return engagement.

Carmen runs through Oct. 29, returning in March with a cast consisting of Nadia Krasteva, Brandon Jovanovich and Nicole Cabell. 312-332-2244;

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