Review: Halevy Triumphs in Ponnelle “Carmen” – San Francisco Opera, December 3, 2006

California’s hottest late November/early December ticket for opera was the San Francisco Opera production of Bizet’s Carmen, whose nine scheduled performances were completely sold out for several weeks. Alternate casts and conductors permitted consecutive day performances on each of three weekends. This is a complete turnaround for a company that only a couple of years ago experienced many nights where rows of empty seats could be seen, despite the availability of abundant $30 “student-senior rush” tickets, many in premium locations, for anyone who had the proper identification.

On paper, it did not seem inevitable that this “Carmen” would be a sell-out. Neither of the announced casts had the stars whose level of public fame was sufficient to assure extraordinary demand for tickets. And, the person in the title role of the production’s principal cast (Marina Domashenko), whose only previous appearance in San Francisco had been in this role four seasons prior, canceled all of her 2006 performances a few days before the production’s 2006 opening night.

[Below: Carmen (Hadar Halevy) becomes aware of the presence of Don Jose (Marco Berti) in the shadows; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The scheduled Carmen of the second cast, Israeli mezzo Hadar Halevy, for her San Francisco Opera debut, was shifted to the first cast, joining two other debuting principals Marco Berti (Don Jose) and Kyle Ketelsen (Escamillo). The fourth principal, Ana Maria Martinez (Micaela), who had appeared in 2003 as Pamina in Mozart’s “Zauberfloete”, could hardly be considered a major box office draw in San Francisco, despite an estimable international reputation.

The engagement of Halevy, a star of the Israeli Opera, seemed at least symbolically auspicious. She, after all, has the same surname as one (Ludovic Halevy) of the team of librettists associated with “Carmen” and (rather more important to them at the time they composed Bizet’s libretto) most of the successful operettas composed by Jacques Offenbach.

Furthermore, Ludovic’s uncle, Jacques Fromental Halevy, was composer of one of the most successful French operas of the first half of the 19th century – La Juive (the Jewess). “La Juive”, after Verdi’s “Nabucco”, is the most important 19th century opera whose subject matter presents the struggles of Jewish characters in hostile environments sympathetically. It is occasionally performed even in this century when a tenor, like Neil Shicoff, has the determination to perform the great role of Eleazar and sufficient clout with an opera company to negotiate the opera’s revival.

[Below: Micaela (Ana Maria Martinez) with a message for Don Jose (Marco Berti); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Having seen Berti last month in Houston in a stellar performance of Gabriele Adorno in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”, I looked forward to his Don Jose, and was pleased to see Martinez return to S. F. Opera as Micaela. Both singers met my expectations and proved to be excellent in their roles.

I had not seen either Halevy or Ketelson, but they both proved to extraordinary performers, so that the principal singers constituted a memorable foursome. worthy of comparison with more famous “foursomes” who performed in San Francisco in previous years.

Nor were excellent performances confined to those in the starring roles. Eugene Brancoveanu (who readers of this website know is always astonishing) delighted as Morales, Ricardo Herrera created a vivid portrait as Zuniga, Rhoslyn Jones and Kendall Gladen were as good a team of, respectively, Frasquita and Mercedes as any presented by the company previously, and Matthew O’Neill provided his most impressive San Francisco performance so far as Duncaire.

The conductor for the first cast was German-born Sebastian Lang-Lessing, who had debuted at the San Francisco Opera in performances of Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” in the Zandra Rhodes production. Borrowed from the San Diego Opera, “Pecheurs de Perles” was one of the most successful and appreciated productions of the Rosenberg era.

Several of Lang-Lessing’s performances in the United States have been with the Houston Grand Opera (where I will see him next month). Although he is becoming associated with French opera in this country, in France he conducts Wagner’s “Tristan” and has a broad and diverse repertoire.

The Bonfires of the Adler Legacy

[Below: the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle sets for “Carmen” Act I; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The production was the famous Jean-Pierre Ponnelle conception, first introduced to San Francisco Opera audiences in 1981. “Conception” is the operative word here, because he created more or less identical sets for both the San Francisco and Zurich opera companies. However, in the chaotic decade of San Francisco Opera management from 1996 through 2005, the majority of the Kurt Herbert Adler legacy of productions was destroyed (for reasons this website hopes to discover). Although some of this occurred during Pamela Rosenberg’s unambiguously controversial reign as General Director, the bonfires began, consuming important Ponnelle productions, during Lotfi Mansouri’s time.

Rosenberg, affectionately remembering the Ponnelle production, announced it for the 2002 season. However, when the production staff searched the S. F. Opera warehouses for the sets, they were nowhere to be found. Arrangements were made with Zurich to purchase their somewhat smaller version of the production, (the Zurich Opera performing, after all, in a much smaller house than the War Memorial.)

Earlier this year the Teatro Regio in Torino rented the replacement Ponnelle sets from San Francisco. Since Halevy was performing Carmen and Berti Don Jose in Turin, these two principals came with prior experience with the often intricate stagecraft of the Ponnelle production. Even though Ponnelle has been dead for 18 years, the stage directors for his productions, in this case Laurie Feldman Santoliquido, rarely change much of what he originally conceived. Santoliquido also directed the March performances at the Teatro Reggio.

The Ponnelle production is dominated by a unit set that frames the mid-stage area with considerable space in the foreground to use the adult and children’s choruses (and extras) to bring color to the storytelling. The unit stage represents Seville’s public architecture – a tall white stuccoed building visible at stage right and left and forming a second story across the entire set.

Deteriorating pieces of stucco reveal whitewashed brick walls underneath. This unit structure is quite cleverly integrated into five separate stage center scenes – the soldiers’ headquarters, the tobacco factory, Lillas Pastia’s inn, the smuggler’s mountain hideaway, and the bullfight arena. Small windows in the archway above the center stage are used as the upper story of the tobacco factory and as a way for us to observe some of the crowd (that includes Micaela) in the bullfight arena’s bleacher seats enjoying that show and then turning to the outside to observe the end of the drama outside.

After Lang-Lessing led the S. F. Opera in a rousing overture, the soldiers in mustard-colored uniforms are seen lounging about the white graffiti-defaced walls around their headquarters, ogling the passerbys. The front of the stage is a busy thoroughfare, and the soldiers interact with artisans, groups of nuns, and citizens of all stations. Brancoveanu creates another engaging character as the non-commissioned officer Morales, who tries to fend off a group of ragamuffin kids set out to pester him, while trying to control the high-jinks of his own rebellious squad of soldiers.

[Below: Carmen (Hadar Halevy) attracts the interest of Zuniga (Ricardo Herrera); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For this year’s performances, the S. F. Opera utilizes the original version of “Carmen” with spoken dialogue, which increases the importance of the role of the officer Zuniga. Ricardo Herrera had made an extraordinary impression as Taddeo in the Fall, 2005 S. F. production of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” (oddly not listed in his credits in the “Carmen” program), but has appeared this season only in the near mute role of Ambrogio in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia”.

Ponnelle’s Zuniga is a bully, whose interest in (and seduction by) Carmen and his jealousy of her interest in Don Jose is established early in the proceedings. Herrera’s presentation of Ponnelle’s concept (notable for its extensive spoken French dialogue) was well-acted and impressively sung – a truly sinister portrait of this character who bears as much responsibility as Carmen for pushing Don Jose to the dark side.

For the scene introducing Carmen, the wall that surrounded the door to the soldiers’ headquarters rolls towards stage right so we are now focused on the Fabrica de Tabaco. Halevy is engaged in fierce fighting with Manuelita (played by Natasha Ramirez Leland, in one of three non-singing parts in this production whose actors deserve special recognition). Halevy possesses the sultry appearance to make a believable Carmen and the rich, full-bodied mezzo voice that is essential to meeting the role’s strenuous vocal demands.

Halevy’s classic Carmen meshed beautifully with the inspired stagecraft of the Ponnelle concept, which fills in details of the plot in ways that always enhance the story-line. Posters of Escamillo are on the wall. Zuniga and Carmen dance in flamenco style as she sings the Habanera. A flower-seller wheels his cart across stage, and Zuniga purchases the red flower to give to Carmen that soon she uses to taunt Don Jose, and thereby Zuniga also.

(One post-Ponnelle innovation for performances in today’s California: what in 1981 and in virtually all productions during the 106 years before then was a chorus of women holding lit cigarettes with the smoke rising from the stage, is now a chorus of women holding unlit cigarettes. Zuniga later in the scene had a cigar that let off a puff of smoke, but that was likely a stage prop.)

Ponnelle makes clear that Carmen’s escape from the forces that would imprison her was pre-arranged. A small gypsy girl observes the events in the tobacco factory scene, and fetches Mercedes. Carmen’s song inviting Don Jose to meet her at Lillas Pastia’s tavern, not only is overheard by Zuniga, but also appears to be a signal to Carmen’s compatriots.

At the time that Don Jose is to let Carmen go, Mercedes and Frasquita are there to rescue Carmen while Duncaire and Remendado appear with pistols to prevent the soldiers from pursuing her. These events delight Zuniga, keeping his would-be love interest out of custody, while jailing his rival for her affections, yet without his seeming to interfere with the proper workings of the Spanish justice system.

For the Second Act, the center wall that served as soldiers’ headquarters and tobacco factory is gone, revealing the interior of Lillas Pastia’s tavern. A staircase on stage right leads up to a balcony with a door that leads outside. The patrons of the tavern, including Zuniga and Morales, are pretty well plastered. (This provides Brancoveanu, whose skill at playing a drunk were used for his Frank in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” earlier in the season, with another great opportunity to display the effects of inebriation.)

At this point, Escamillo’s entourage enters through the door on the mezzanine balcony to which the staircases lead. A banner that proclaims “Viva Escamillo” is strung across the upper landing’s railing. Although S. F. Opera has enlisted a number of baritones and bass-baritones, both famous and obscure, to sing Escamillo, few have presented the aria as effectively as Ketelsen did. (Even if some people regard the Toreador Song as overexposed, it does not mean it is not a tricky aria to sing.)

Although few people regard Don Jose’s “flower song” as the central piece of the opera, it is the first opportunity to really judge the mettle of the performance’s leading man. Berti performed the aria with sufficient polish to clarify for all that he is destined for the first rank of contemporary tenors, and Halevy’s Carmen was clearly affected by its sentiment. Halevy and Berti then recline on one of the inn’s table (shades of Netrebko and Villazon).

Herrera’s Zuniga meets his fate and we meet the personification of Lillas Pastia, whose tavern is such a central part of the dramatic action, played again as he did in the 1980s by Michael O’Rourke. O’Rourke rifles Herrera’s body and extracts a pocket watch.

[Below: Ponnelle’s Act III concept; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For the third act, the center stage area is encrusted with a rockface that represents the wild country in which the smugglers hide. A large cannon is being hoisted over the rockface’s side. It jerks, causing a ripple of fear, but is steadied and finally is deposited at the stage’s floor level. A rope bannister edges the steps carved out of the mountainside. The trio of gypsy women (Halevy, Gladen and Jones) meet the high standards of this performance in a magnificent presentation of the fortune-telling card scene, where Carmen acknowledges that she will die first, then Don Jose.

The tension between Halevy’s Carmen and Berti’s Don Jose, suggesting the emotions of one partner who has fallen out of love, and another who is determined that nothing in their relationship must change, manifests itself. All of the gypsies find distractions which require them to abandon the stage, which provides an opportunity for us to hear Micaela in her soliloquy.

Martinez’ Micaela is led to the smuggler’s place by a guide, admirably played by Jean-Christophe Deneve, who, though not a singing role, has much information to impart in beautifully spoken French. With the gypsy encampment abandoned for a few moments, Martinez picks up the playing cards and scatters them, disgusted at the course of events that has resulted in Don Jose’s fall from grace. Then, elegantly singing one of the greatest soprano arias, she reveals Micaela’s deep despair. Micaela, after all, agrees with Carmen that the latter’s relationship with Don Jose is doomed.

[Below: Escamillo (Kyle Ketelson) seeks out the smuggler’s hideout; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The smuggler’s hideout (which takes some effort to get to but cannot be too hidden, since it is the only scene in the opera where Bizet has all four principals appear) becomes the scene for the quarrel between Escamillo and Don Jose, the first opportunity in the standard repertoire to enlist the services of a knife-fight coordinator. (Mascagni will add some additional work for such a person with “Cavalleria Rusticana” a decade and a half later, although it is often staged less visibly than this one.)

But it is not just the character’s prowess with a knife, it is the third (and fourth) act vocal requirements that place the role of Don Jose firmly in the dramatic tenor category, and Berti proved himself fully capable of meeting the role’s demands. He leaves with Micaela to succor his dying mother, and Carmen, now very interested in Escamillo’s attentions to her, ascends the steps carved in the rockface to join him at the top of the stage.

For the fourth act the center part of the unit stage is dominated by the outer wall of the arena, although at stage right, one can see an interior space with four sets of arches all leading to a distant courtyard window. Like the first act, the fourth is populated with a much broader segment of Seville’s population than frequent the tavern or the mountain hideout, giving Ponnelle and the guardians of his legacy the opportunity for spectacle. Duncaire arrives and pickpockets Lillas Pastia, securing the watch that Pastia had stolen off Zuniga’s corpse.

As the ragamuffin chorus (augmented now with some upper class kids in their festival day finery) watches the parade of the matadors, a familiar Ponnelle touch is employed. The kids as a chorus come downstage almost to the footlights and in full fan fever follow with their eyes, gesticulate and jump up and down as each of the bullfight stars pass by.

Morales (Brancoveanu) is back, now with Carmen’s adversary in the first act cat-fight, Manuelita (Leland), on his arm. Morales obviously recognizes in the crowd Don Jose bringing Micaela to what she assumes will be a great performance by Escamillo, and shifts position to watch them wending their way into the arena. (Adding Micaela to the fourth act is non-textual, but suggests a bit of backstory as to what Don Jose was doing between leaving the hideout and arriving at the arena.)

Carmen and Escamillo, both of whose lives personify living on the edge, express their devotion to each other. Escamillo is blessed by the clergy and does proper reverence to an effigy of the Virgin Mary, carried to the arena’s exterior walls. By now, the crowd, except Carmen, has moved into the arena. The arena’s main door opens suddenly and Don Jose, whom we had seen accompanying Micaela into the bleacher seats, appears against a pure white background.

As Don Jose explains to Carmen the necessity of their returning to the status quo ante, she exudes incredulity. She has continued to wear his ring (she probably liked its appearance and Escamillo would not have been the least threatened by it), but, knowing that her gesture would wound Don Jose, she throws it at him. The taunt, as expected, brings her death, and then his, by his own hand. Micaela, wondering where Don Jose has gone, looks out the window to see the culmination of the drama below.

Bizet’s opera, in the hands of artists who can both act and master the opera’s vocal complexities, is an incomparable theatrical experience. The combination of the cast of Halevy, Berti, Ketelson and Martinez, the San Francisco Opera orchestra and its conductor, Lang-Lessing, and the genius of the Ponnelle production, under the guardianship of stage director Santoliquido, was a memorable experience.