Steinberg: Love, soldiers, gypsies and free tickets to ‘Carmen’

Associate choreographer Sarah O'Gleby instructs dancers during a rehearsal for "Carmen." One hundred readers will win free tickets to attend at the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production on Feb. 28. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle . . .”

“Love is a rebellious bird,” Carmen sings, during her famous entrance in the beloved opera, “Carmen,” which opened at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Saturday.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day.

What does “love is a rebellious bird” even mean? Later she explains: Love; you wait for it, it never comes. But stop waiting, there it is. Think you’ve caught it? It’s gone.

Sounds about right.

This is the ninth year the Sun-Times and the Lyric have joined forces to bring 100 lucky readers to “A Night at the Opera,” and this is perhaps the most exciting yet because, well, it’s “Carmen.” Spain. Handsome soldiers. Saucy gypsies. Men fighting with knives. Women fighting with knives.

And the music. The soul of Spain distilled as only a Frenchman, Georges Bizet, could do it.

We’re going Feb. 28, and there’s a party beforehand. Details about how to enter to win one of 50 pairs of free tickets are online. You can enter every day, and if I were you, I would.

OPINION

I stopped by the Lyric to watch rehearsals a few weeks ago.

At the beginning of the fourth act, there is a complex dance sequence that flashes past like a dream when you see it.

“Let’s do all that again,” says Sarah O’Gleby, associate choreographer, to six pairs of dancers in a large studio. Try to imagine doing what they’re about to do again. Imagine six women walking up to six men who are lunging forward, reaching their hands behind themselves to form a step at tailbone level. Imagine stepping onto that impromptu foothold with your right foot while hoisting your left leg over the man’s shoulder, then sticking your right leg straight out as he twirls while extending your arms in the air.

Now imagine doing that in two-and-a-half-inch heels. And a foot-tall headpiece. And a 10-foot-long ruffled skirt.

“Let’s go again,” O’Gleby says, arms crossed, her lips pursed, intently. “One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two, three, four, five, six. . . . One, two, three . . . stop!”

Later, I ask about the routine.

“Two minutes,” she says. “It’s only two minutes, but in that two minutes ladies are having to negotiate a very tight arabesque, an extremely long skirt, a very tall headdress while also doing very complicated partner work at very quick speed. You’ve got everything against you. You’ve also got to dance it, easy easy easy. You have to practice it and figure things out. You have to not let your brain kick in. I was saying to some of girls, ‘I see you’re thinking about it. You have to feel it.’ ”

Director Rob Ashford, a former dancer, choreographed the show and wants to push dance to the forefront.

“We’re trying to make it a little bit rougher and, hopefully, sexier because of that,” he says.

Rather than have the opera take place in 19th century Spain, Ashford moved the setting to the 1930s, inspired by the famous Picasso painting of the Spanish Civil War.

“When I was first asked to do it, the bullfighting aspect I found fascinating,” says Ashford. “The final act is in a bull ring. And then I thought of ‘Guernica.’ There’s that bull in the upper left corner. I went right to that painting; in the corner that stately bull, underneath this dead body in the arms of someone screaming in agony, and I thought: That’s the final moment of ‘Carmen.'”

Not to give too much away but it is an opera, and not one of those Mozart everybody-join-hands-happily-at-the-end operas either.

I attended the opening performance Saturday, and am pleased to report that everything comes together, from the orange, sun-washed sets to the waved hair of the dancers, the stage filled with strolling townsfolk and rushing children and loitering soldiers and smoking factory girls. Not to forget the most important part, luscious music sung by big voices: Eleonora Buratto as good girl Micaela and Joseph Calleja, her momma’s boy soldier, Don Jose, who doesn’t stand a chance once Carmen, sung with suitable lustiness by Russian mezzo-soprano, Ekaterina Gubanova, tosses her flower at his feet.

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