Ah, Carmen, that Spanish gypsy man-magnet whose passions quickly flare and then fade even faster, whose manipulative, devil-may-care temperament invariably brings pain and destruction, whose feverish love of freedom is tied to an equally feverish sense of death. She is the stuff that opera is made of, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Carmen” that opened Saturday night captures her, and all those caught in her web, at their very best, with Bizet’s ravishing score driving this fateful love-and-death story with ideal dramatic force and vocal beauty.

A co-production with the Houston Grand Opera, “Carmen” (with its fine libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Helevy based on a Prosper Merimee novel) has been stunningly directed and choreographed by Broadway veteran Rob Ashford. If his 2015 production of “Carousel” for the Lyric was oddly frustrating, his “Carmen” is wholly satisfying and intriguingly modern in the most unforced ways, with David Rockwell’s handsome sets, Donald Holder’s fiery lighting and Julie Weiss’ costumes adding to the overall feel. And Ashford’s roots as a choreographer are gorgeously visible at every turn, including the introduction of a dancer in a Picasso-like bull’s mask (Judson Emery) who threads his way through the story and suggests the many victims of Carmen’s unapologetically wild, impulsive ways.

Ashford also has cast singers who can act, which makes a crucial difference, just as it did with the Lyric’s lovely production of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” earlier this season. And along with a wonderfully seductive rendering of the score by the Lyric Opera Orchestra (so superb that its lyrical overture to the opera’s second half received bravos), there is the ever-brilliant chorus under the direction of Michael Black, and the beguiling work of the Chicago Children’s Chorus directed by Josephine Lee.

‘CARMEN’
Highly recommended
When: Through March 25
When:
Civic Opera House,
20 N. Wacker
Tickets:
$20 – $349
Info:
(312) 827-5600;
www.lyricopera.org
Run time:
Three hours
with one intermission

Eleanor Buratto is Micaela in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Bizet's "Carmen." (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Eleanor Buratto is Micaela in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

If you’ve ever watched a bullfight (I saw my first and last one in Seville a number of years ago), you will know that the bull arrives in the ring and is quickly and brutally stabbed in the neck — increasing its rage and desperation, but also making any chance of survival impossible. The metaphor certainly applies to Don Jose, the hapless soldier and mamas’s boy who falls under Carmen’s spell and ultimately will pay dearly for his entanglement with her.

The velvety Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova avoids all the cliches. Not only does she tap into Carmen’s blatant admission that she loves only for the moment — that love is “a wild bird that cannot be imprisoned” — but she moves like a dream, and can make a fan feel more dangerous than a dagger. And as her Don Jose, the Malta-born tenor Joseph Calleja uses his rich, warm voice and Brando-like looks to effortlessly suggest his character’s emotional weakness and constant ambivalence.

There also is an extraordinarily beautiful performance by Eleonora Buratto (the Italian soprano who left such a fine impression when she performed in “Falstaff” with the CSO last year). As Micaela, the woman of great inner strength who adores Don Jose (and cares for his mother, who has chosen her as her son’s bride-to-be), Buratto sings with great heart, and the aria in which she stands alone and addresses her fears is nothing less than show-stopping.

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

Christian Van Horn, the stately American bass-baritone, brings just the right casual arrogance and sense of entitlement to the role of Escamillo, the toreador who catches Carmen’s eye. Particularly outstanding in the roles of Carmen’s girlfriends are soprano Diana Newman (as Frasquita) and mezzo Lindsay Metzger (as Mercedes), whose vocal prowess also is matched by their ability to move with great style. The 12 seductive dancers who suggest everything from a slow motion tango to an erotically charged bullfight are a reminder of how crucial dance can be as a storytelling element in opera. The dashing bass-baritone Bradley Smoak possesses just the right haughty elegance as Lieutenant Zuniga. And there is splendid singing by Takaoki Onishi, and by Emmett O’Hanlon and Mingjie Lei, as two revolutionaries who operate from a mountain hideaway.

Early on, the gathering of the male chorus waiting for the female tobacco factory workers to take a break is expertly realized, and watching the female section of the chorus blow smoke into the air with confident abandon is priceless, as Carmen proclaims that all lovers’ words are as ephemeral as smoke. The Chicago Children’s Chorus, whose exquisite voices are matched by sophisticated dancing skills, fills the stage with great merriment and panache, particularly in an early scene in which they mimic the battalion of soldiers who patrol Seville.

The final stabbing, which moves from sexual mauling to violence, could use a bit of polish. But the outcome here is never in doubt. As Carmen tells us, it’s all in the cards, and she impulsively plays her own hand till the bitter end. Ole!

Note: Beginning March 16, Anita Rachvelishvili will assume the role of Carmen, Brandon Jovanovich will sing Don Jose and Ainars Rubikis will conduct.

Lindsey Metzger (from left), Ekaterina Gubanova and Diana Newman in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Bizet's "Carmen." (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Lindsay Metzger (from left), Ekaterina Gubanova and Diana Newman in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)