‘Carmen’ Offers Insight Into Progress Of Modern Society

Set to Georges Bizet’s exciting music, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Carmen” tells the thrilling story of a deadly love triangle. Photo by Lynn Lane

On Feb. 11, The Lyric Opera debuted “Carmen,” Georges Bizet’s timeless French tragedy following the femme fatale, Carmen, and her lover, Don José.

Written in the 1870s, “Carmen” reflects the lives of outcast gypsies living in early nineteenth century Spain. The show features countless accomplished artists from around the world, including Ekaterina Gubanova, who plays the leading lady, Joseph Calleja as her naïve-turned-surly beloved, Eleonora Buratto as Micaela, the abandoned love of Don José and Christian Van Horn as Escamillo, the toreador who’s been torn from bullfighting in pursuit of Carmen.

Van Horn lights up the stage with his portrayal of Escamillo, bringing a frivolity to the chiefly humorless story. His bass-baritone voice is an auditory delight for every audience member.

Buratto, a skilled soprano, shines in her role of José’s forgotten lover. Viewers can’t help but feel sympathetic for this woman who’s been discarded like a pair of tattered shoes.

Callejo brings not only his stunning tenor voice to the part of Don José, but he also brings a startling acting performance. His portrayal of Don José enables the audience to observe how this character transforms from a naïve, smitten soldier into a jealousy-ridden, possessive brute.

He is obsessed with Carmen and determined to ensure that if she will not belong to him, then she will belong to no one. This possessiveness is what kills Carmen when José stabs her in a jealous rage. The curtain falls as he weeps over her lifeless body.

Gubanova breathes life into the production, and it’s no question that her voice ignites the desire of every man in Spain. Carmen as an archetype is supposed to represent the seductive sirens of her era, but Gubanova shows us that she is far more complicated than that.

Carmen is an outcast. She gets what she wants, but she is not immune to human suffering. Carmen is abused and often called “witch” or “demon” by the man who claims to love her. Determined to maintain her apathetic exterior, she gives witty retorts when he insults her and laughs when he slaps her. Gubanova sheds light on this complex character by accurately displaying both the best and worst sides of her personality.

Set in nineteenth century Spain, the scenery is what you would expect: angular set designs accompanied by a rugged mountain range. But one noticeable aspect of the set design is the frequent change in lighting.

During romantic scenes, the stage is engulfed in a scarlet glow. In night-time scenes, everything is royal blue. The transition from color to color both advances the plot and enhances the ambience, creating a visibly smooth flow from scene to scene.

When watching Bizet’s “Carmen,” it’s crucial to remember the time in which it was written and the time in which it takes place. At- titudes toward women — especially gypsy women — have changed drastically in the past 200 years, and for good reason. Though this is a theatrical work, it contains much truth as to how society felt about women like Carmen.

A further investigation into Don José’s character also provides useful. In the beginning he is an innocent, Catholic, Spanish soldier, loyal to the army and to his first love, Micaela, whom is also innocent, Catholic and Spanish. Along comes Carmen, a woman considered impure by Spanish standards. She seduces José, turns him away from Micaela and convinces him to leave the army.

José quickly becomes cold and possessive, and eventually grows to despise the woman he once called his love. Finally, he murders her out of frustration and envy.

This may imply that gypsies are seductive temptresses often responsible for the downfall of once good men and that one should marry a wholesome Spanish woman instead. This tendency to blame a woman for a man’s mistakes is not uncommon and still occurs today. Don José was not forced to leave Micaela, he was not forced to abandon the army and he was not forced to kill Carmen. These are all choices he made on his own.

We can all learn from Bizet’s piece of artistic history by remembering that each person should be held accountable for his or her own actions.