Review: Francesca Zambello’s Theatrically Compelling “Carmen” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2019

The San Francisco Opera typically mounts five operas every fall and mounts three more the following summer. Tonight the second part of the company’s 2018-19 season opened with New York director Francesca Zambello’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen”, based on Zambello’s 2006 production for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Norwegian Opera.

J’Nai Bridges Carmen

Washington State mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, in her most important San Francisco Opera assignment to date, was a vocally secure, dramatically convincing Carmen.

Bridges’ physically demanding performance went beyond the gypsy dancing (with castanets) expected of Carmens in most productions. It included a vigorous first scene fight – with fellow cigarette factory worker Manuelita – at the front of the stage (which in the opera and virtually all other productions happens offstage). Bridges’ Carmen fought with a Manuelita performed by Cuban-American dancer Blanche Hampton, now a member of the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps.

[Below: J’Nai Bridges as Carmen; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Bridges conveys Carmen’s sensuality in her first act seduction of the conflicted Don Jose, and uses it again in her successful attempt to prevent Jose’s return to his barracks.

Matthew Polenzani’s Don Jose

Illinois lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani has the breath control one needs for a successful career performing Mozart’s operas, and for Bizet’s second most famous tenor role, Nadir [Review: “Pearl Fishers”: Polenzani, Kwiecien, Rebeka, Silvestrelli in Magnificently Sung Performance – Lyric Opera of Chicago, November 29, 2017].

The role of Don Jose is associated more with the vocally weightier spinto voice than the lyric voice, but Polenzani proved that one need not be a spinto to be an effective Don Jose.

Polenzani brought vocal subtlety and nuance to the aria La fleur due tu m’avais jetée, and the power one needs for the dramatic ferocity of the finale. He was an effective actor in his doomed relationship with Bridges’ Carmen and showed skill in his knife fight with Kyle Ketelsen’s Escamillo.

[Below: Don Jose (Matthew Polenzani) reveals he kept a flower with him in jail, as a memory of his love; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In an opera so familiar, one does not expect surprise insights into the characters, but the combination of Polenzani’s acting and Zambello’s direction was revelatory. Polenzani portrayed a Don Jose who is at the knife edge between self-control and dissolution, whose interactions with Carmen send him over the edge into despair and lethal violence.

Kyle Ketelsen’s Escamillo

Wisconsin bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen returned to the San Francisco Opera after a 12-season absence, again in his signature role of Escamillo, for which he is internationally famous.

For the opera’s most famous number, the Toreador Song, director Zambello has Escamillo singing its first verse while astride a horse he rides into the Lillas Pastias scene. In San Francisco, the horse chosen to carry the bullfighter was a Gypsy Vanner stallion named Drogen.

[Below: Escamillo (Kyle Ketelsen) rides in on a Gypsy Vanner stallion (Drogen); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Ketelsen displayed mastery of the vocally challenging Toreador Song’s wide range. He performed a high octane knife fight with Polenzani’s Don Jose with dramatic intensity.

In the final scene Ketelsen (walking ahead of the stallion Drogen to the bull ring with Bridges’ Carmen astride the horse), and his affecting duet with her as she wishes him success in the upcoming bullfight, convinced me that Escamillo was the man that Carmen could have truly loved.

Below: Kyle Ketelsen, as Escamillo, regales his admirers at Lillas Pastia’s tavern with his exploits in the bullring; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Ketelsen’s performance had the self-assurance of an artist who, through a career-long association with Escamillo, knows the character intimately. [For my interview with him, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Kyle Ketelsen.]

Anita Hartig‘s Micaela

The evening was the San Francisco Opera debut of Romanian soprano Anita Hartig. Her expressive, sensitive portrayal of the woman who best understands Jose, proved an auspicious introduction to the San Francisco Opera audience, who gave her third act aria Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante a sustained ovation.

Below: Anita Hartig as Micaela; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Natalie Image’s Frasquita, Ashley Dixon’s Mercedes, Zhengyi Bai’s Remendado and Christopher Oglesby’s Duncaire

The comprimario roles were well-cast. Canadian soprano Natalie Image and Georgia mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon sang (and danced) the roles of Carmen’s gypsy companions, Frasquita and Mercedes.

[Below: Carmen (J’Nai Bridges, left), Frasquita (Natalie Image, center) and Mercedes (Ashley Dixon, right) prepare for a return to smuggling; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

All three gypsy women were part of a team of smugglers led by Chinese tenor Zhengyi Bai’s El Remendado and Georgia tenor Christopher Oglesby’s Duncairo. The five artists sparkled in the sprightly quintet Nous avons en tete une affaire.

David Leigh’s Zuniga and SeokJong Baek’s Morales

Don Jose’s superior officer Zuniga and fellow corporal Morales were played respectively by New York bass David Leigh and South Korean baritone Seokjong Baek. Leigh’s sonorous bass suggested a promising career (that includes the role of the King in the August 2019 world premiere of Ruder’s “The Thirteenth Child” at the Santa Fe Opera). Baek’s was an eye-catching and ear-pleasing performance as Morales.

[Below: El Remendado (Shengyi Bai, center, pointing pistol), Carmen (J’Nai Bridges, front right), Mercedes (Ashley Dixon, behind Bridges, partially hidden) and Frasquita (Natalie Image, top center), taunt Lieutenant Zuniga (David Leigh, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Several of the comprimario artists are current participants in the San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Adler Fellowship program. Natalie Image and Ashley Dixon are second year Adler Fellows; Seokjong Baek and Zhengyi Bai are both first year “Adlers”.

[Below: Corporal Morales (Seokjong Baek, left) offers his assistance to Micaela (Anita Hartig, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Maestro James Gaffigan and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro James Gaffigan, performed with distinction. The San Francisco Opera Chorus, under the leadership of Scottish chorus master Ian Robertson, sang with obvious spirit. The chorus, comprised of individuals who can act as well as sing, was used with dramatic effectiveness, in the first act reacting in various ways to the sultry heat of the Andalusian summer, in the final scene conveying the excitement of the imminent bullfight.

Francesca Zambello’s Production

The physical production is based on a unit set comprised of several structures, each of which can be configured to variously represent “Carmen’s” four scenes – a public area near a Seville cigarette factory, an inn frequented by smugglers, the smuggler’s mountain hideaway, and the front of an amphitheater in which bull fights take place.

Even though the sets turned landscapes and interiors into abstractions – the same walls representing both an inn’s interior and a rugged mountain slope – they allowed scene changes to take place during the entr’actes that began the second scene at Lillas Pastias’ inn and the fourth scene at the bull ring, Except for one intermission between the second and third scenes, no pauses were required in the musical performance.

[Below: the first scene from the 2006 Royal Opera House Covent Garden Francesca Zambello production of “Carmen”, showing the organization of structures to form the first act; edited image, based on a Catherine Ashmore photograph for the Royal Opera House, from francescazambello.com.]

When “fate theme” first sounds in the opera’s opening Prelude, on the darkened stage, a spotlight shines on Polenzani’s Don Jose. A pantomime presages Don Jose’s imprisonment.

When Bridges’ Carmen sings the first scene’s erotic Habanera, every person on stage except Don Jose, doing paperwork with his back to her, is watching Carmen, who is well aware that one man is resisting her charms.

Zambello’s production brings the relationships of the characters into sharp relief. Carmen is pleased to have gained Don Jose’s attention and expressions of love. But as Don Jose’s love evolves into jealousy, possessiveness and ultimately obssession, Carmen tires of that relationship. She prefers the glamour and status, and the more stable and less emotionally demanding company of Escamillo.

Other Crew Members

English designer Tanya McCallin created the sets and costumes. English director Denni Sayers was Zambello’s Associate Stage Director and was Movement Director. California choreographer Lawrence Pech was Dance Master. New York fight director Dave Maier choreographed fight sequences. The horse Drogen and his handler, Caryn Hoeflen (who is in costume for the performance) made their San Francisco Opera debuts.

Recommendation

I recommend the production, cast, and musical performance enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera goer and to persons new to opera!