San Francisco ‘Carmen’ Fails To Deliver The Heat

San Francisco Opera is performing Spanish director Calixto Bieito's production of 'Carmen.' (Production photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
San Francisco Opera is performing Spanish director Calixto Bieito’s production of Georges Bizet’s ‘Carmen.’
(Production photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
By Lisa Hirsch

SAN FRANCISCO — Ever since the San Francisco Opera announced its 2015-16 season, we’ve been hearing about the Spanish director Calixto Bieito, whose production of Bizet’s Carmen is featured through July 3. The company’s press releases have characterized Bieito as “controversial,” “provocative,” and a “bad boy,” all appropriate descriptors for a director who has, for example, staged Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) with nudity, cross-dressing, rape, and a chorus that sings while seated on the toilet. This Carmen, which has been staged at many houses since the original 1999 production, has been further described as “raw, sexually-charged, and cinematic.”

Irene Roberts and Brian Jagde generated little heat as Carmen and Don Jose.
Irene Roberts and Brian Jagde generated little heat as Carmen and Don José.

What a surprise, then, to find that the production, as presented in San Francisco on May 27, is a remarkably tame updating of the opera to the late 20th century, with very little in it that’s more provocative or raw — or sexually charged — than any other Carmen you might see. There’s a rifle-toting, well-muscled supernumerary clad only in briefs who runs laps around the male chorus at the beginning of the first act; the same supernumerary takes it all off and does some stretches in the shadowy lighting of the third opening. There’s a riding crop wielded by Morales. There’s more overt sexual harassment of Micaëla in Act 1 than in most productions and more sexual groping among the secondary characters. Don José doesn’t quite rape Carmen just before he murders her, but he certainly comes close.

Micaela (Ellie Dehn) asks Morales (Edward Nelson) where she can find Don Jose.
Micaëla (Ellie Dehn) asks Morales (Edward Nelson) where she can find Don Jose.

Beyond that, the revival production as staged in San Francisco by Bieito associate Joan Anton Rechi comes across as a series of missed opportunities. It’s set in Ceuta, a Spanish city on the North African coast. However, the staging is almost entirely without sets or scenery, and what there is of it lacks a strong sense of place, except for the Spanish flag and a giant bull statue in Act 3. So the only way you can tell the location is by reading the program. Alfons Flores was responsible for such sets as there are.

The square outside the cigarette factory has a flag pole and a phone booth, from which Carmen makes her first entrance. Lillas Pastia’s tavern is apparently outdoors somewhere, delineated only by a tiny potted tree and a vintage Mercedes-Benz. Nothing in the smugglers’ camp tells you that you’re in the mountains, though a veritable sales lot of cars is cleverly used to bring the goods onto the stage.

The prevailing darkness of Gary Marder’s lighting scheme doesn’t convey the heat of the sun, surely a feature of both North Africa and Spain. You might as well set the opera on the moon. And the level of sexual violence could have been higher, increasing the sense of menace and threat to the female characters.

Zachary Nelson was a conventionally boastful Escamillo.
Zachary Nelson was a conventionally boastful Escamillo.

Beyond the sexual violence toward women depicted, the production doesn’t bring much political analysis to bear on the opera. The locale might have been a springboard for highlighting European colonization of Africa, not to mention the status of the Gypsy minority in Spain.

That the company’s publicity has been so focused on Bieito and his reputation is not a surprise, since this is his first opera production to reach the United States. You have to wonder, though, whether there was also a little misdirection involved, since Bieito did not stage the revival. The San Francisco cast had some turnover after the original announcement, with Nadine Sierra (opening Micaëla) and Riccardo Massi (alternate cast Don José) withdrawing in November, and Massi’s replacement, Maxim Aksenov, withdrawing in May.

Even before the withdrawals, the cast was not exactly packed with big stars, and despite lively and vivid work by debuting conductor Carlo Montanaro, the opening night singers didn’t generate much dramatic or vocal heat. In the title role, Irene Roberts displayed a plush mezzo and a good sense of line and legato, but a clear character never emerged. Her Carmen wasn’t a fiery seductress or a kittenish one, just an ordinary woman who for some invisible reason stimulates an obsessive, and eventually murderous, interest on Don José’s part.

Carmen gets a major amount of the music in this opera, and the work loses its dramatic core if the character isn’t magnetic or outsized. In this production, Carmen is sometimes sexual, but she hardly behaves in a seductive manner. She doesn’t dance for Don José — those famous castanets stay in the orchestra pit. Such directorial choices result in a Carmen whose wildness and fierce independence are lost. The scenes between Carmen and Don José are weakly blocked in general and contribute little to demonstrating the intensity of their relationship. Most of the motivating force and drama in the opera simply vanishes.

Carmen (Irene Roberts) drives the soldiers mad in her 'Habanera.'
Carmen (Irene Roberts) drives the soldiers mad in her ‘Habanera.’

It didn’t help that there was little chemistry on opening night between Roberts and tenor Brian Jagde. His Don José presented itself as at best a work in progress, bland rather than obsessed, and with significant vocal issues. He sounded grainy and pressed, with poor legato and strain on the high notes. He did not sound ready to sing nine more performances.

Soprano Ellie Dehn fared best among the principals, presenting a tenderly appealing Micaëla. She sang with glowing ease, and her Micaëla was more modern and assertive, less shyly provincial, than is usually the case. Baritone Zachary Nelson was a conventionally boastful Escamillo, full of bravado and vocally good save for some loss of volume on his low notes.

Amina Edris and Renée Rapier were excellent as Frasquita and Mercédès, as were Edward Nelson as Moralès and Brad Walker as Zuniga.

Perhaps this production will heat up as the run progresses. Perhaps the alternate cast will find more drama in the production. Perhaps the production would work better altogether if it took more chances, or if Calixto Bieito had been present.

Additional Carmen performances:

May 29, June 1, 23, 26, July 1: Roberts, Jagde, Dehn, and Nelson
May 28: Costa-Jackson, Dargel, Grimaldi, and Sumuel
May 31, June 17, 30, July 3: Costa-Jackson, Jagde, Grimaldi, and Sumuel
Carlo Montanaro conducts May and June performances; Jordi Bernàcer conducts July 3.

Carmen will be simulcast free from the War Memorial Opera House to 30,000 fans at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, on July 2.

In the continuing summer season, San Francisco Opera presents two more operas:

Don Carlo, June 12-29; Nicola Luisotti, conducting. Cast includes Michael Fabiano, Mariusz Kwiecien, Ana María Martínez, Nadia Krasteva, René Pape/Ferruccio Furlanetto, Andrea Silvestrelli.

Jenůfa, June 14-July 1; Jiří Bělohlávek, conducting. Malin Byström, Karita Mattila, William Burden, Scott Quinn.

Lisa Hirsch studied music at Brandeis and Stony Brook. She blogs about classical music and opera at Iron Tongue of Midnight.