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