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BWW Opera Review: What's Old is New Again in CARMEN from Bad-Boy Bieito for US Debut at San Francisco Opera

From left: Amina Edris as Frasquita,
Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen and
Renée Rapier as Mercedes.
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

For a director known as opera's bad boy, Catalan Calixto Bieito turned to something awfully familiar in Georges Bizet's CARMEN for his US debut. Then again, he didn't actually show up at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, tied up with a new production of Aribert Reimann's LEAR in Paris and dispatching one of his top collabortors, Joan Anton Rechi, to pull it together.

Brian Jagde as Don Jose.
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The production, with sets by Alfons Flores, costumes by Merce Paloma and lighting by Gary Marder, gives us a look at the low-life of Spaniards--living abroad in this case--or, at least, one through the eyes of a bunch of Frenchmen: Bizet and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, from a novella by Prosper Merimee. It's about men who treat women as commodities and the one woman who has the nerve to try to give as good as she gets, and is killed for it.

Fair enough--but it's not exactly a new look at CARMEN by Bieito: The production has been around the block in Europe, at the ENO, the Liceu and other houses, since the late '90s, and it's not one of his risky, over-the-top affairs (like a production of UN BALLO IN MASCHERA that opened with a chorus of men sitting on toilets). Rather, it's a take on the opera for companies that clearly want the cachet of having a Bieito production, without the risk of offending anyone in the audience, not spending a fortune for scenery (there is little) or overly relying on name-brand singers (not necessarily a bad thing). From that standpoint, it's a winner for the SF Opera and Boston Lyric Opera, co-producers of the current version.

Bieito also took shears to the work--not the way Peter Brook did with LA TRAGEDIE DE CARMEN, cutting it down to 80 minutes and four characters--but with cuts primarily to dialogue and recitative that brought the show to under three hours with just one intermission. (I say "bravo!" to that move, since the multiple intermission versions sometimes seem endless, no matter who is singing.)

What did he add? Well, there's a change of scene, with the opera now set in Ceuta, a Spanish outpost in North Africa, and there's no cigarette factory or Lillas Pastia tavern to be seen. Everything takes place in the vague outdoors, including some clumsy cavorting across the roofs of a bevy of vintage Mercedes-Benz autos, which the smugglers use to get out of town. Bieito's biggest change is with the character of Micaela, from the mousy girl Don Jose left behind to a spitfire in her own right, in purple spangles, who gives Carmen the finger. Finally, Don Jose slits Carmen's throat rather than strangling her. Oh, yes, last and maybe least, there's a brief, nude interpretive dance for one of the soldiers (Marcos Vedovetto) taking place on a semi-darkened stage; it reminded me of the dim lighting in famous nude scene of the original production of the musical HAIR--and was just light enough for someone to yell, "Encore!" when it was done.

Conductor Carlo Montanaro led the opera orchestra in a lively account of Bizet's famous score and the company's fine chorus was outstanding as the variety of soldiers, children, cigarette girls, Gypsies and smugglers in the cast, as well as the cheering throng at the bullfight. On the performance of May 31, the Carmen was the alluring mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson, who was a standout as Lola in the Met's CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA a year ago; there have been bigger-voiced Carmens but she definitely brought the right sex appeal to the part. Tenor Brian Jagde, an alumnus of San Francisco's Merola Opera Program and a former Adler Fellow, had the vocal chops for Don Jose, but I wished for a better dramatic transition from mama's boy to love-intoxicated soldier in his interpretation.

Soprano Erika Grimaldi's Micaela did well in Bieito's irrational rethinking of the role, but bass-baritone Michael Sumuel's Escamillo had some trouble with the "Toreador Song," though he recovered later in the opera and seemed a much better match for Carmen than Don Jose. Amina Edris and Renee Rapier made strong impressions as Frasquita and Mercedes, respectively.

Maybe one of these days, this director will actually give this country something that is new and unvarnished. His next stop in the US: A production of LA FORZA DEL DESTINO at the Met...which has already been seen at the ENO in London. Oh, well...


Further performances of CARMEN will take place on June 17, 23, 26, 30 and July 2 and 3. The performance on July 2 at 7:30 pm will be this year's Opera at the Ballpark, a free simulcast to the city's AT&T Park that is part of the Company' partnership with the San Francisco Giants. English subtitles will be shown on the ballpark's HD screen. Online registration--assuring early entrance to the ballpark for preferred seating and a special prize drawing--is available at

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