Lyric Opera’s CARMEN: Ashford and Calleja Make History

“Bullfighting is the only art form that both represents something and is that thing at the same time: the matador’s elegant immobility in the face of the bull not only represents man’s defiance of death, it is a man defying death, and there are women who do it too.”[i]

In Rob Ashcroft’s magnificent new telling of Bizet’s Carmen, the metaphor of life defying death meets the Hemingway-esque use of the bullfight to represent the destructiveness of sex, where each encounter with each torero involving seduction, manipulation, maneuvering, and penetration.

In Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen is the toreador and Don Jose is the bull.

In Bizet’s masterpiece, the bull wins.

No wonder the great British critic Kenneth Tynan compared a bullfight to Shakespeare’s Othello and called the torero “a slow sad perfect fury.”

No wonder the great director/actor Orson Welles pondered,

“What is the essence of this art? That the man carry himself with grace and that he move the bull slowly and with a certain majesty. That is, he must allow the inherent quality of the bull to manifest itself.”

Having redefined Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel at the Lyric Opera two years ago, the daring Mr. Ashford now allows the long suppressed inherent quality of Don Jose to manifest itself. As a Broadway director, Mr. Ashford continues a long line of outside-opera American innovators which began in 1950 when Rudolph Bing asked Garson Kanin to helm Die Fledermaus at the Met.

In 2010 Richard Eyre’s historic production of Carmen, he presented, during the opera’s overture, a dance counterpart to the musical motif of the Carmen/Don Jose fatal liaison, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.

Director-choreographer Ashcroft extends the dance motif throughout the multi-act drama, making the destructiveness of sex a living part of the entire Seville atmosphere.

The great bass Feodor Chaliapin, the operatic star who brought the psychological characterization of operatic roles to a new level of excellence, stated that Don Jose was the only role that made him want to be a tenor.

And what a tenor the Lyric opera has for its Carmen!

Considered by many to be the world’s greatest tenor, Malta’s Joseph Calleja brings to his work a superior acting technique as well as a stellar voice.  (His rendering of Don Jose’s  heartbreaking flower song brought tears to the audience’s eyes and “Bravos” to their lips.)Perhaps his stage ability is genetic, since Orson Welles considered the Maltese actor (and one-time operatic tenor) Joseph Spurin-Calleja to be “one of the best actors I’ve ever known. You play next to him and you just feel the thing that you do with a big actor – this dynamo going on.”[ii]

And what a dynamo Mr. Calleja is on stage! Anyone who saw his Romeo last year will not want to miss his Don Jose. It is a powerful and moving re-interpretation of the role. Unlike his swashbuckling Romeo, the Don Jose of Rob Ashford and Joseph Calleja seems a version of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, as played by Rod Steiger (another bull of a man) – a good-natured, but socially awkward, obedient mama’s boy.

Calleja’s Don Jose is a simple man devoted to his mama, the military, and his Michaela. Alone among soldiers and citizens, he has absolutely no interest in the town tramp, Carmen.

That indifference makes him her prime target.

But in Bizet’s story, with Ashford’s interpretation, through Mr. Calleja’s spellbinding interpretation, this mama’s boy’s inherent, but long suppressed, passion is inflamed by Carmen, a female toreador of sex, to explode into a mad destructive fire of rebellion.

In Cajella’s Don Jose we see evil drive a man from devotion to damnation.

And through the recurring dance motif Mr. Ashford has created, Carmen’s tool of choice, death-defying passion, is clearly a fatal virus in the Spanish air available for anyone, even the innocent Don Jose, to catch.

To extend the Marty analogy to Mr. Ashford interpretation even further, the Michaela of Eleanora Buratto is the dramatic ancestor of Chayefsky’s Clara, a nice, sweet devoted home-body of a girl who loves both her boyfriend and his mother, and would do anything for them out of pure Christian charity. Ms. Buratto’s  beauty makes Carmen’s power all the more insidious. Ms. Buratto is so lovely, and sings so sweetly, that the audience is forced to wonder how Don Jose could be so stupid as to throw away a future with his charming girl-next-door.

The answer is in the secret space inside Don Jose that Carmen manages to unlock

The Carmen of Ekaterina Gubanova uses her considerable psychoanalytical abilities rather than her physical charms to get her way. Mr. Ashford places her in positions away from her targets, so that she can scout their ways and means as she devises her custom-made plan of attack. This Carmen gives her men very little, thereby insuring that their hunger keeps them interested in her. While scoping her prey, Ms. Gubanova sings exquisitely.

Ms. Gubanova’s seduction of Don Jose is simply her latest challenge. She destroys him because she can.

Diana Newman as Frasquita and Lindsay Metzger as Mercedes could not perform better as Carmen’s henchwomen. They exude the sexuality Carmen promises. Their card reading duet is one of the production’s high points. Bradley Smoak continues to turn in remarkable performances this season with a very strong Zuniga. And Christian van Horn’s Escamillo is everything heroic one should expect from the great matador of Seville, the total opposite of Calleja’s shy anti-hero. The wonderful, and now internationally acclaimed Lyric Chorus, turns in another marvelous performance.

The dancers Mr. Ashford has assembled and employed with such jaw-dropping physicality and grace must be singled out: Shannon Alvis, Judson Emery, Alejandro Fonseca, Ashley Elizabeth Hale, Shanna Heverly, Marissa Lynn Horton, Jeffrey B Hover, Jr., Jessica Wolfrum Raun, Todd Rhoades, Abigail Simon, Malachai Squires, and JP Tenuta. These dancers give form to Bizet’s lush music and embody the creative importance of Mr. Ashford’s interpretation.

The dynamic abstract  settings of David Rockwell employ the bold and vibrant colors of Joan Miro, which blend, mysteriously, thanks to Mr. Ashford’s canny leadership, with the Depression era clothing’s brown, grey and black muted color palate. Donald Holder’s lighting subtly shifts with the on stage atmospherics.

The new Carmen illustrates a passage from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

The bulls are my best friends.”
I translated to Brett.
“You kill your friends?” she asked.
“Always,” he said in English, and laughed. “So they don’t kill me.”

Don Jose, the Bull, must, tragically, kill Carmen, the torera, so she won’t kill him.

The showdown should not be missed.

[i] Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Into the Arena. The World of the Spanish Bullfight

[ii] Patrick McGilligan, Young Orson. The Years of Luck and genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.

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