BWW Reviews: SF Opera Delivers Traditional Production of Bizet's Carmen
Unless you've never seen "Carmen," one of the most legendary operas ever written, San Francisco Opera's production of Bizet's saucy opera may come across as old news. The chorus and orchestra, led by the spirited conductor, Nicola Luisotti, bring the only real action and vitality present in the production, while Anita Rachvelishvili (who shares the title role with Kendall Gladen) and a few supporting characters deliver the only memorable voices of the production.
Carmen's character is far from safe. The opera tells the story of a soldier who deserts the army to join Carmen and her band of gypsies on the road. But, as Carmen warns in her opening song, she has a fickle nature. She loves those who don't love her, and those whom she loves should beware. Her romances never last long, and as Don José, the soldier, becomes possessive and controlling, Carmen turns her glance elsewhere.
San Francisco Opera's overall production has nothing spectacular or innovative to recommend it. The sets, while accurate to the period, are bland. They could have some appeal if it weren't for the lack of colorful costumes. Without color to make singers pop, everything blends together. Carmen's opening costume, in particular, has no sensual appeal, unlike what the libretto would suggest of the character. A sleeve falling down on the shoulder or a red shawl tied around the waist instead of the unattractive yellow Rachvelishvili wears would make a huge difference.
The only costume that stands out comes in the last act. Carmen wears a beautiful white dress, a symbol of the purity absent from her heart. But audiences have to wait until the end of the three hours and forty minute opera to see a stand out costume, and even that costume does not take advantage of the possibilities. When Don José stabs her to death, Carmen twists her body and falls to the ground in such a way that hides her from the audience and includes no fake blood.
Audiences must have patience with the quality of singing, as well. While Rachvelishvili wows from the second she opens her mouth to sing, Thiago Arancam, playing opposite of Rachvelishvili as Don José, gave an unbearable, unpleasant performance during the first act of the November 15 performance. He strained his voice, making it sound forced and stiff, much like his acting. But his sound became more smooth during the second act and continued throughout the performance, much pleasanter to listen to, but still nothing compared to some of the singers who have sung the same role on the same stage in past years.
Rachvelishvili's acting was not perfect, either. Much like her costumes, she needed more of the playful, sensuous and teasing side of her character. Several YouTube videos indicate she is capable of and has delivered on this count in other productions, so the blame likely lies with the director, in this case. The staging needed more action and vitality to match the excitement of the music, especially in the second act when Carmen and other gypsies dance at a tavern. The second act also featured dramatic lighting that created shadows. Such shadows could have been utilized to create far more interesting and effective staging.
Fortunately, there are a few supporting characters to help the production along. Sara Gartland (who sings the role of Micaela, a young woman from Don José's homeland) has a strong, stunning voice that commands attention, yet portrays the purity and innocence of the character. As a second-year Adler Fellow, Gartland is in the beginning stages of a career bound to take her to many more of the world's famous opera houses. Susannah Biller, Cybele Gouverneur, Timothy Mix and Daniel Montenegro also have exceptional voices and exuberant expressions that contribute to the romantic feeling of the gypsy setting, especially during a quintet in which they sing with Carmen about how women make thieving and scheming a lot more fun and successful.
But from an opera company as famous as San Francisco Opera, audiences may expect more than good supporting singers and one great leading singer. While other opera company productions have created modern re-imaginings, used huge, ornamental sets, or produced R-rated, provocative versions of "Carmen," San Francisco Opera's production remains relatively safe and traditional. Coming across as mundane at times and lacking vitality, it's likely to please newcomers, but bore those who have seen it all before. Unlike its title character, it has little worth flirting with.
San Francisco Opera
Nov 26, 29 Dec 2, 4 - Starring Kendall Gladen as Carmen
Nov 17, 20, 23 - Starring Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen
Photo by Cory Weaver