Cher Public

Incomplete mountain pass

Carmen 1It’s been a surprising season in San Francisco: lots of comings and goings, often serendipitous, and what looked on paper to be in the mid-range of “good enough” has instead been, on the whole, deeply satisfying. While next season’s slate of operas and stars prompted one local critic to pen the headline “San Francisco Opera announces end of reviewer’s interest in art form,” the summer season still promises some thrills. 

The big news on Van Ness Avenue, it goes without saying, is Calixto Bieito’s operatic debut on these shores. Cutting to the chase, I’ll say I found myself wondering if this revival of an production from the early part of Bieito’s career represented the director in a pre-provacateur stage or if talk of his outrageousness had been overstated. The temperature runs right about where Almodovar’s does: there’s depravity, but often in the service of a handsome stage picture.

I had the phrase “ornamental free-form sodomy” all cocked and ready to go for this review but didn’t get to pull it out of the holster. There were puzzling gestures and flinch-inducing ones, kitsch and somewhat obvious foregrounding of subtextual violence, but it was hard not to leave with the overwhelming impression that Bieito takes Carmen seriously and has afforded the work a searching production with attention lavished equally on thematic overhaul and personregie.

Irene Roberts should properly be the star of the evening and she is, despite what must be admitted are non-negligible deficits. In its sweet spots, her voice is world-class, and yet in middle ranges not insignificant to the role (to wit: most of where the number where Carmen makes with the castanets) things get a little Kermitty or, to be kinder, she gets that thing where early music sopranos sometimes sound like countertenors.

Carmen 2The delivery, too, at times felt unidiomatic—not in the sense of her diction, about which as a non-native speaker I find it hard to judge and harder to care, but in her ability to connect phrases into utterances. That said, she’s terrific onstage, moving with the economy of gesture missing from ninety percent of operatic performances, and she sometimes sings straight through the trouble spots, as she did in a pin-you-to-your-seat reading of “En vain pour eviter.”

The persona Roberts and Bieito have worked out for Carmen is, in my experience, novel. If we’re going to get all Hegelian, and I can just tell you want to, all those years of mezzos playing Carmen as a small-town drag queen and then all those years of other mezzos, in reaction, playing her as a stony sociopath have found a deeply satisfying synthesis here in a Carmen with nothing to prove—one who knows the difference, though, between self-styled alpha bluster and the real threat of patriarchal violence. Roberts played the first act like the gal who actually gets laid while her friends are back at the bar flirting and the last act with palpable terror. It was as three-dimensional a Carmen as I’ve seen.

Brian Jagde, as Jose, was on surer footing than his colleague vocally, but with a certain clumsiness of physical characterization. It seems to me he might be the perfect tenor for those who complain about our fallen age of moviecasts, as he’s unsure in motion but sings like the blazes, both in terms of drama and pure sound. He capped “La fleur” with a B-flat that was neither crooned nor bawled but in a warm, sustained mezzo-forte in defiance of the difficulty of that approach, and was gratifyingly balls-out in the last act.

Carmen 3I think I may have complained lately of local audiences booing fine performances of unsympathetic roles, but I may have to eat crow, having realized that I will never really like any performance of Micaela (who is sympathetic but just such an endless drag.) So it’s hard to size up Ellie Dehn, done up here as a mall-shopping Andie MacDowell. The phrasing is sensitive; the sound warm if a touch faceless, and I just want her to shut up about Jose’s goddamn mom. Zachary Nelson went all in with the swagger and vulgarity Bieito’s Escamillo demanded, and gave the role a suave reading.

Merola Fellow Amina Edris and Adler alumna Renee Rapier were given some of the production’s riskiest shtick as Frasquita and Mercedes, but they ran with it and turned in distinguished vocal performances, as did firm-voiced Adlerian Edward Nelson, a noteworthy presence in several recent productions.

So perhaps Carmen is Bieito on best behavior. The provocations of the production, with one or two exceptions, were mild ones and were backed up by the concept. Bieito was not, that I could hear, booed at the production team’s call, though Bay Area audiences will titter at nudity. There was occasional attrition on the part, one supposes, of audience members who will now be writing to ask for trigger warnings, but the reception was enthusiastic, and rightly so.

Photos ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

  • JackJack

    Terrifically written, in your distinctive voice. You made me care to read a review of Carmen.

  • mountmccabe

    Great review! I agree with pretty much everything. One note, that was the revival director, Joan Anton Rechi (the revival director, here as in London for ENO), not Calixto Bieito on stage at the end. There was a second person (presumably also from the production team) that came out with Mr. Rechi; I am not sure who that was but it was not Mr. Bieito.

    I liked how the production came off here. The toppling of the bull was a particularly visceral bit of imagery. There was talk of going back to the Mérimée for the characterization of Carmen and Don José, which seems odd as there just isn’t space for it. They did try to cut as much about the invented Micaëla from the opera as possible, fitting with the focus on realism. This attempt at showing Don José as ungrounded did not make me sympathize with him anymore, so the final scene falls flat. (Of course treating the story of Don José as a tragedy ALSO does not work for me; my root issue is with the opera, not the Bieito).

    • Greg.Freed

      Oof, embarrassing. I don’t know what Bieito looks like and just assumed. The reviewer regrets the error.

      • Porgy Amor

        From a distance, it would be an easy mistake to make even for someone who does know what Bieito looks like. They’re similar, physically.

  • armerjacquino

    Nobody writes better than the Freed.

  • grimoaldo

    “I had the phrase “ornamental free-form sodomy” all cocked and ready to go for this review but didn’t get to pull it out of the holster”


  • Porgy Amor

    I have missed you here!

    So perhaps Carmen is Bieito on best behavior.

    That has long been its rep. If someone who would get all “Against Modern Opera Productions” at most Bieito productions is going to get through one without being too outraged, this would be the one. It is long serving and widely traveled.

    • Greg.Freed

      Yeah, it’s mostly not too outrageous, though a couple of gestures did seem a little epater-la-bourgeoisie-y. I’m not being specific because I do think their outrageousness is of some value/interest when you’re seeing the production for the first time.

  • Greg.Freed

    For a counterpoint, my friend the actual critic in the Chronicle disagreed with me on I think every single point!

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

  • Krunoslav

    “playing her as a stony sociopath ”

    Q: Do you like Ewing?

    A: I don’t know, I’ve never ewed.

    • armerjacquino

      You get a Hall Pass for that one.

  • Operngasse

    Does the production try to make anything out what I’ll term a visual pun between the character Mercedes and the use of a Mercedes automobile? I just can’t believe that it is coincidental.

    I am trying to think of other instances were character/places and car brands collide, and have come up with Ford and Dodge, although Wagner comes close with Brabant and Trabant.

    • armerjacquino

      Well, if we’re counting singers, there’s James Morris.

      And if we’re counting translations, there’s ‘One Fine Daewoo’

      • armerjacquino

        Nissan Dorma.

        • Greg.Freed

          Toyota ho!

          • le cerf agile


            • le cerf agile

              …and Gigli was often criticized for his interpolated SAABs.

            • PushedUpMezzo

              Mi chiamano Mini
              Ah, Ford e lui

    • Krunoslav


      Curt Olds

      Heddle Nash

      Buick ELECTRA

      Nadine {Ford] Sierra

      [Honda] Grace Bumbry

      Michèle [Honda] Crider

      [Rambler] Marlin Miller

      Dodge DEMON

      THE BARBER OF [Cadillac] SEVILLE

      L’ASSEDIO DI [Cadillac] CALAIS

      [Chevy} Nova Thomas

      Kate [Dodge] Royal

      Jésus [Ford] Pinto

      Boaz [Chevy} Senator

      [Ford] CONSUL

      [Chevy} TOSCA

      [Chevy} ORLANDO

      Our Own Greg [Honda] Freed


      • Elsa von Trabant?

        • Ha, didn’t notice the original post. Sorry, Operngasse.

  • Thanks for such a witty review, Greg.

    I’ve seen a few highlights of this production and like what I saw.

    • PCally

      The DVD is my personal favorite of the opera, even if it’s not the most beautifully sung. The cast is overwhelming

  • Will

    We get this production in Boston early next season. I now really can’t wait.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Big deal! They rent an old production and the director is too busy working on a new production in Munich, so they have to settle for an assistant to mount the show

    • Cicciabella

      That shouldn’t be a problem. Assistant directors are not nincompoops. We’ve just had a run of the Claus Guth Don Giovanni in Amsterdam. Guth was only available for one day of rehearsing, but his assistants did a great job. The singers all acted very well and every detail was taken care of. You can see from DVD of the same production (directed by Guth) that the audience was not shortchanged in any way. For the singers it’s another story: they would probably prefer to have the director present at every rehearsal.

  • none

    An excellent DVD of this production from the Liceu, Barcelona with Uria Monzon, Poplavskaya, Alagna and Schrott has been available for some years.