They say that in the United States no opera is performed more often than Georges Bizet’s Carmen. I can easily believe that. Seems like between two opera companies in San Francisco, one each in San Jose, Palo Alto, and Fremont, along with the European and Met HD programs I just go from one to another.
It’s wonderful! There’s the music; one hit selection after another; all recognizable, all hummable, but never growing stale.
There are the characters. Carmen (Kendall Gladen) herself: flamboyant, sexy, strong-willed, domineering – and yet potentially vulnerable; what an opportunity for a mezzo. tenor Don José (Thiago Arancam) – a naïve country bumpkin with plans to marry his childhood sweetheart at the start – an insane murderer at the end. His sweetheart, soprano Micaëla (Sara Gartland) – one of the most appealing “second female” roles in all of opera. And bass-baritone Escamillo (Paulo Szot) – three cameo appearances, and yet so vital to the story – and with a “top ten” aria of all opera to sing. Plus all the minor parts: Carmen’s friends Frasquita (Susannah Biller) and Mercedes (Cybelle Gouverneur); the smugglers Dancaïre (Timothy Mix) and Remendado (Daniel Montenegro), Innkeeper Lillas Pastia (Yusef Lambert), the “other corporal” Moralès (Trevor Scheunemann), and Lieutenant Zuniga (Wayne Tigges).
It may be a sign of my dotage, but it seems to me that most of the recent Carmen that I have seen have been cruder than my memories of more distant performances. This is particularly true in the scene when Micaëla (Sara Gartland) first comes on stage. I think of that scene as a gentle one with conventional gallantry. Of course Corporal Moralès (Trevor Scheunemann) and his men are delighted at an opportunity to look at and talk to a pretty young woman. But they are in uniform and on duty and would not think of using their superior physical strength to force any improper attentions on her.
But many modern directors seem to strive for absolute verismo – and have a rather coarse view of it. Jose Maria Condemi is no exception to this trend, although he is far from the worst. Micaëla knew that she had to get away from Moralès and his men. If they once got her inside their barracks and out of public view, she would be raped – and more than once. It is a tribute toGartland’s acting that she so clearly conveyed a feeling of justified fear of these men – but for my taste I’d rather she could have displayed it in a less uncomfortable situation.
I have a similar complaint about the treatment of Lieutenant Zuniga (Wayne Tigges) when he is overpowered by the smugglers at the end of Act II. I seem to recall a scene from long ago, in which he and Dancaïre (Timothy Mix) treat each other with respect. They are opponents in a high-stakes game and Dancaïre has clearly won this round. In my memory, Zuniga accepts this with a rueful smile and Dancaïre is almost apologetic as he ties him up, “Just until we are safely away.” But here the smugglers taunt him and he snarls revenge back at them. Again Condemi isn’t nearly as bad as many other directors who allow for real physical abuse.
It’s not that I’m squeamish. I would place no limit at all on the violence that Don José (Thiago Arancam) and Carmen (Kendall Gladen) inflict on each other in the cave scene in Act III and in the final bloody climax of Act IV. But the powerful story is about these two people. It’s not about Morales or Zuniga or Dancaïre. They are there to fill in the story and help it move along. We should not become too wrapped up in them. Micaëla is different. As her character is developed the contrast between her and Carmen serves to more clearly illuminate the latter. To a lesser extent the insouciance of Escamillo (Paulo Szot) serves the same purpose for Don José.
All in all, I was not impressed with this particular Carmen. It was OK, but it was not outstanding. But remember. An evening spent at a so-so performance of Carmen may be more enjoyable than one spent at the best possible rendition of many an opera!
One little touch that was outstanding. Near the end of Act IV Carmen takes off the ring that Don José had given her. In all other productions I can recall she hurls it away in obvious anger. Here she deliberately places in on the point of the dagger with which he is threatening her. This cool contempt for him and for his dagger is bound to be much more maddening to the crazed Don José than any violent hurling of it the ground – or at him.
There are still lots of performances before it closes on December 4. For detailed information and to by tickets go to sfopera.com.
There is an unexplained discrepancy between the information in the printed program and the web page. Both of them show that Anita Rachvelishvili will sing the role of Carmen through November 23. According to the web page, Kendall Gladen will return for the final four shows, whereas the program shows the role being sung by Kate Aldrich.
The Opera Nut
San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
CARMEN by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Sung in French with English supertitles.
Approximate running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes including two intermissions
All photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on November 18, 2011.