American Music: A new modern-day Carmen

Carmen by Georges Bizet
San Francisco Opera
May 22–June 3
Taube Philanthropies Presents Opera at the Ballpark
Free Live Simulcast at the AT & T Park July 2

Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most loved of operas but it also one of the most controversial as well as having numerous versions and variations including the American musical Carmen Jones and the forthcoming MTV version starring Jennifer Lope

The latest offering at San Francisco Opera devised by the so-called bad boy of opera Calixto Bieito has been performed since 1999 in Europe but this production is the first time it has been performed in North America.

Bieito is known for his provocative interpretations and this Carmen was very raw, brutal and sensual and under revival director Joan Anton Rechi much of the dialogue has been stripped out, there were few repeated refrains and a couple of sections removed. This concentration on the arias helped to make the work more concise, as well as shorter.

According to the programme notes Bieito sets his Carmen in post-Franco Spain in the autonomous Spanish enclave of Ceuta, one of the country's little colonial remnants at the top of Africa. It is a familiar location in the news these days as one of the points where African migrants attempt to gain entry to Europe. It is a real frontier town where immigrants attempt to cross the border and presumably there are bands of people smugglers. So this would be an ideal setting for contemporary smugglers and a contemporary Carmen.

Bewilderingly, the production makes no visual reference to Ceuta or smuggling there or across the straits. The one connection is the use of several 1980s Mercedes Benz cars which are to be found in the territory.

Despite that quibble, it is certainly a contemporary work. The flag is the current one, the soldiers are in modern day uniforms and Don Jose takes a selfie. In Act III the stage is dominated by a large silhouette of a bull similar to the many which dot the Spanish motorways, remains of the popular Soberano brandy billboards.

The large bull emphasises  the macho and misanthropic aspects found in the opera also obvious on the programme booklet which features Miro's painting of a Man/Bull with erect penis.  There are several others which verge on being gratuitous include the stringing up of Carmen on a flagpole by the soldiers as some form of trophy.

While this is a male-dominated environment where woman are abused and used, there are also images showing both the brutish side of men and the sensual – a soldier running to exhaustion in the Act I and the same soldier performing naked with a slow dance at the beginning of Act III.

This all contributes to the creation of a world of strong primal sexuality, latent violence and individuals with blurred moral codes. It is love in its various forms that the characters depict and evoke and each of the singers was able to create characters with their own notion of love.

At the core of this emotionally charged world is Carmen sung, by Irene Roberts, who is not the usual lusty swaggering gypsy but rather a young smart woman who uses her guile as much as her charm to get what she wants.  She handled the seduction scene where she removes her knickers before cementing her relationship with Don Jose with a fine mixture of nonchalance and lust.

She sang with an alluring voice that took on elements of savagery in Act I and in the fortune telling card scene her voice was full of foreboding.

Brian Jagde was incredible as the conflicted Don Jose. His voice matched both his viciousness and tenderness, displaying a superbly complex character.

Micaela, although dressed in an inappropriate hippy style outfit, was sung elegantly by Ellie Denn. A bit light initially,she used her voice to convey the nature of true love based on a kindness and affection rather than lust.

Zachary Nelson’s Escamillo was more of an urbane character than bullfighter and gave a powerful performance both with voice and strutting stage presence.

Franquita (Amina Edris) and Mercedes (Renee Rapier) were in fine form as Carmen’s friends, providing the sensual and lewd dimensions of the gypsy culture.

The rest of the San Francisco Opera 2016 season includes

Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi June 12 – 29

Jenufa by Leos Janacek, June 14 – July 1

Umberto Andrea by Andrea Chenier, September 9 - 340

Dream of the Red Chamber by Bright Sheng (World Premiere), September10 – 29

Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti, September 28 – October 15

The Makropulos Case by Leos Janacek, October 14 – 29

Aida by Giuseppe Verdi, November 5 - December 6

Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, November 6 – December 4

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