Rob Ashford's new production of Carmen for the Lyric Opera (shared with Houston Grand Opera) is lusciously embodied, with expressionistic splashes of colour against a quasi-modern backdrop. What sets the tone, though, are the generous dance numbers choreographed by Ashford, which interpret Latin dance elements within the framework of ballet. These numbers, which look near-surreal in Donald Holder’s high-contrast lighting, make you realize how good Bizet was as a writer of dance music – the best compliment I can imagine for a choreographer.

© Todd Rosenberg
© Todd Rosenberg

The standout moment is the opening of the second half, which raised a gasp from the audience. I won’t spoil the surprise, but will give praise to Julie Weiss for the costumes: the women’s dresses, in particular, combined short skirts with a long train, which could be wrapped around their bodies in an impression of long, ruffled dresses, or otherwise wrapped around their male partners in a delightful gender-bending effect. Meanwhile, the dresses are echoed in the curtain, which is outfitted with a set of rich, overlapping brocades that flutter agitatedly as the curtain falls. The toreador’s trappings become part of the stage, making their symbolism nearly inescapable.

Joseph Calleja (Don José) and Ekaterina Gubanova (Carmen) © Todd Rosenberg
Joseph Calleja (Don José) and Ekaterina Gubanova (Carmen)
© Todd Rosenberg

Ekaterina Gubanova, the first of two Carmens in this run (Anita Rachvelishvili replaces her from 16 March), was sardonic, self-assured, and quietly dramatic in the role. Her highlights didn’t play up the character’s sexiness and reputation as an irresistible temptress. Instead, she showed us a Carmen who struggles with her choices and the force of her own decisions. Small gestures, not big ones, subtly inflected her varying feelings about the men around her. Her very slow Habanera encapsulated her strengths as a musician; Gubanova is a master at controlling tempo, playing on the audience’s urge to move forward by holding us at the mercy of her pace.

Joining her as Don José is Joseph Calleja, whose voice simply stood out. He sang with brio and a fast, largely unvaried vibrato, the voice launched outward in spinning pockets of air. Calleja’s voice presented itself as an object to be admired and applauded in its own right, always somehow appearing in relief to the action rather than fully absorbed within it. When he was paired with Eleonora Buratto as the normative Micaëla, the sheer torsion of his vibrato tended to overwhelm her sound, which was not an ideal. Buratto on her own has a brilliant upper register and captured well the contrast with Gubanova’s complex, dark mezzo tones.

Eleanora Buratto (Micaëla) © Todd Rosenberg
Eleanora Buratto (Micaëla)
© Todd Rosenberg

The orchestra kept up with Bizet’s breathless, sinewy lines, though on opening night the wheels occasionally skidded off the tarmac. It’s a score that makes precision difficult, though, and the orchestra is to be commended for bringing out the range of Bizet’s colours, which play off the shifting colours of the stage. Following the visually numbing Norma, this Carmen seems to move frictionlessly from scene to scene, and evokes in its sets and strange transient figures the freedom of a cinematic dream sequence. It reminds us that while Carmen’s end was a crime, it would have felt like a fever.