Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sexy, Gritty Carmen at SF Opera

Irene Roberts as Carmen, Brad Walker as Zuniga. All photos by Cory Weaver
May 27, 2016

 If I had my way, old warhorses like Carmen would be regularly taken out, attacked and disassembled in order to keep them from going stale. So all hail Spain’s bad-boy director Calixto Bieito, whose modern-day reworking restores a lot of grit, sex and blood to Bizet’s opera.

Bieito sets his story in Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in North Africa. The first-act location is less a village square than a small military base. Not that location really matters. What’s more important is the presence of modern-day dress and devices (selfies, cars), which serve to make the story more relevant.

The sexuality is stronger, too. The rowdy Spanish soldiers run a woman up the flagpole in her underwear. A couple duck behind a car for feigned fellatio. The Torero (Marcos Vedovetto) performs a naked moonlight dance. The latter, to Bizet’s lovely flute/harp entr’acte, is quite moving, and turns out to be inspired by a ritual performed by matadors on the nights before their debuts.

The story is also altered by the varied strengths of the singers. Irene Roberts is a capable and beautiful Carmen, but in the case of this role one is free to expect a little more charisma than usual, and this is something Roberts simply doesn’t deliver. This lack has the effect of shifting focus onto Don Jose. Tenor Brian Jagde is fully charisma-equipped, and his lirico spinto is an amazing instrument, capable of producing violent knife’s-edge outbursts as well as an aching, tender finish to the Flower Song. In the final confrontation with Carmen, Jagde’s thunderous tone and physical size (especially compared to the petite Roberts) makes this one of the scariest Joses I’ve seen, and places Carmen much more in the position of pure victim. The choreography of the final kill is raw, brutal and bloody (fight director Dave Maier).

Zachary Nelson as Escamillo.
Revival director Joan Anton Rechi makes some deft touches, as well. The bullfight crowd scene bristles with energy, spectators flying into the air behind the masses. The interplay of the smugglers and their poor, abused Mercedes autos is vivid and fun.

Another intriguing power-shift goes toward Micaela, whose love for Jose is more apparent than usual. The act of passing on his mother’s kiss in a less-than-motherly fashion is a trendy move, but Jose brushing her off to reminisce about his mother is priceless, along with Micaela’s miffed exit. Later, having convinced Jose to leave his psycho girlfriend, she gives Carmen the bird (Italian style), something I’ve always wanted to see her do. Micaela’s new strength is aided by the voice of Ellie Dehn, who gave such a luminous performance as The Countess in last summer’s Marriage of Figaro. The melody associated with Jose’s mother is a heart-rending presence, and her sense of legato in the mountain aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’ `epouvante” is divine. The horns in this piece were rich and lovely; I also noticed that the strings under Carlo Montanaro had a particularly sweet sound, especially in the first act.

Ellie Dehn as Micaela, Brian Jagde as Don Jose.
Zachary Nelson was a likeable Escamillo, in the smooth, James Bond style, but, as with Carmen, I felt like I needed a little more fire. Frasquita and Mercedes (Amina Edris and Renee Rapier) were particularly fun, and everybody wanted to take Frasquita’s white cowgirl boots home (costumer designer Merce Paloma). The chorus and children’s chorus were both fantastic, particularly in the supporting parts to Carmen’s Habañera (chorus director Ian Robertson). And a singular bravi to former Opera San Jose singers Daniel Cilli and Alex Boyer as the smugglers El Dancairo and El Remendado. Cilli looked like a young Art Garfunkel playing a pimp, Boyer a greaseball in powder blue; together they added great flavor to the smuggling scenes. (Sadly, Montanaro’s light-speed tempo pretty much destroyed the usually fun quintet, “Nous avons en tete une affaire.”)

Set designer Alfons Flores got the most out of his minimal set pieces, including a telephone booth, a flagpole and a twenty-foot bull silhouette, the latter inspired by the ubiquitous Spanish billboards for Soberano brandy. The bull made its biggest impact upon removal, accomplished by the stage techs by simply pushing it forward. The crowd gasped as it fell slow-mo onto its face.

Bieito’s stated purpose was to “approximate the gritty naturalism” of the opera’s source material, Prosper Merimee’s novella. To that I say, mission accomplished. I hope SFO continues to prod classical operas in this fashion.

Through July 3, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $26-$395., 415/864-3330.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year critic and author of the best-selling novel The Popcorn Girl.

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