The “summer season” of the San Francisco Opera opened Memorial Day weekend premiering a new co-production (with the Boston Lyric Opera) directly based on Calixto Bielto’s European production of Bizet’s “Carmen” that some found to be notorious, and others, including myself, found illuminating.
I had previously reported on the production’s British debut [Ruxandra Donose, Adam Diegel Are Dramatically Convincing in Calixto Bieito’s Sexy, Edgy “Carmen” – English National Opera, November 21, 2012].
[Below: Catalan director Calixto Bielto; edited image of a Pérez de Eulate publicity photograph from Teatro Argentina, Rome.]
Bielto’s production, here re-created by Andorran director Joan Anton Rechi, contains several distinctive features. He intentionally restores to Bizet’s “Carmen” the “shock” element associated with both the opera in 1876 and the Prosper Mérimée novel on which the opera is based.
But one can introduce shock without achieving any further insights into the opera’s drama. The insights that can be derived from this “Carmen” production are a result of Bielto’s significant shift of “Carmen’s” time, its place and its cultural point of view.
“Carmen” from a French Viewpoint
“Carmen”- the opera – is the product of a Parisian composer, working with a team of Parisian librettists, reworking a novella about Spain written by a Parisian author.
In San Francisco Opera’s recent history, the principal productions during the thirty-year period between 1981 and 2011 were two virtually identical creations by the great French director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Although I regard all existing Ponnelle productions – including those owned by San Francisco Opera – as world treasures, I had been impressed by Bielto’s concepts when I saw the British debut in 2012 of the production on which the new San Francisco Opera production is based.
Instead of “Carmen” being presented as the ideas of Frenchmen about what Spain, and Spanish gypsies, bullfighters and soldiers might be like, Bielto wanted to create a more Spanish view of what Spanish society is like.
“Carmen” from a Spanish Viewpoint
Bielto’s remarkable ideas include shifting the opera from Seville, located in European Spain, to the Spanish town of Cueta, located on the North African side of the Straits of Gibraltar.
[Below: the Straits of Gibraltar, with the European portion of Spain to the right and the North African independent Spanish city of Cueta to the left; edited image of a photograph from wikipedia.com.]
The time period was shifted from the 19th century, to the mid-20th, during the era of Generalissimo Franco’s Spain. His “Carmen” is situated in a distant military outpost, remote from the Spanish mainland, whose surrounding community famously included smugglers, gypsies and bullfighters.
The result is a roughneck, rather than a romanticized, version of the classic opera.
The May 28 Performance: Costa-Jackson and Diegel
Three Memorial weekend performances were scheduled on consecutive days, alternating artists performing the roles of Carmen, Don Jose, Micaela and Escamillo. By scheduling the second and third of the Memorial weekend performances, I was able to see each of the artists who are scheduled to sing in “Carmen” this season.
[Below: Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The May 28th performance was the San Francisco Opera debut for Korean-born Tennessee tenor Adam Diegel, the Don Jose. It was also the first lead role at the San Francisco Opera for Sicilian-American mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson, the Carmen.
I had seen both artists performing Carmen and Don Jose together elsewhere [Costa-Jackson, Diegel, Matanovic and Simpson Excel in Glimmerglass Opera’s “Carmen” – August 13, 2011], and had also seen Diegel in a virtually identical Bielto “Carmen” [see Ruxandra Donose, Adam Diegel Are Dramatically Convincing in Calixto Bieito’s Sexy, Edgy “Carmen” – English National Opera, November 21, 2012,]
[Below: Adam Diegel as Don Jose; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I found the chemistry between Costa-Jackson and Diegel to be persuasive.
Costa-Jackson, who has sung the role in several venues of various sizes, was experiencing her first performance as Carmen in the large War Memorial Opera House. Her characterization was intense, always self-aware, and secure in its vocal performance.
Diegel’s sturdy spinto tenor voice provided the requisite power to the highly emotional scenes of the second, third and fourth acts. He inhabits the role of Don Jose, effectively portraying the character’s passion as well as his anger at Carmen in the final scene for whom he has “damned his eternal soul”.
[Below: Don Jose (Adam Diegel, right) asks Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson, left) to be his lover, should he risk his career to free her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Grimaldi and Sumuel
Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi was an affecting Micaela, with a beautifully sung performance, that projected the strength that this character possesses that enables her to pursue Don Jose into potentially treacherous situations.
[Below: Erika Grimaldi as Micaela; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The Escamillo for the performance was Michael Sumuel. Escamillo, for all the familiarity of the character’s Toreador Song (a challenging aria for any bass-baritone) can be as difficult a role to cast as it is to sing.
I’m not convinced that this is a good “career repertory” role for the very talented Sumuel, but his Escamillo did make a striking impression in the staging of his third act knife-fight with Diegel’s Don Jose, as they hopped from one sedan’s hood and top to those of another sedan while swinging blades at each other.
[Below: Escamillo (Michael Sumuel, left) expresses his love for Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The “Quintet” and Other Notes on the Musical Performance
The production is outstanding in the “permanent” cast – those individuals who are scheduled for every one of the 11 performances.
The roles of Carmen’s two close friends Frasquita and Mercedes were played with authority and verve by Egyptian-born New Zealand soprano Amina Edris (an Adler Fellow in her San Francisco Opera debut role) and by Iowa mezzo-soprano Renee Rapier (a former Adler fellow).
[Below: Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson, center) reveals to her companions Frasquita (Amina Edris, left) and Mercedes (Renee Rapier, right) that her fortune telling cards reveal her impending death; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Vocally, both Edris and Rapier made a strong impression, with Rapier’s warm mezzo and focused delivery suggesting that she could easily take on the role of Carmen herself.
Bielto’s staging gave much for Frasquita and Mercedes to do, providing Mercedes with a young (and charming) daughter, who obviously was already skilled in an outlaw’s tricks – played on this evening by Saarika Gunapu, who alternates with Amalia Abecassis.
The roles of their male compatriots in smuggling activities El Duncairo and El Remendado were sung respectively by California baritone Daniel Cilli and New York tenor Alex Boyer. Their characterizations were vivacious and easily absorbed one’s attentions.
The Machismo of the Military Outpost
The production provides an arguably realistic view of the masculine world of a legion stationed in a remote area. Soldiers stationed in a distant land not bound by what we might call “middle class social expectations” could well engage in behaviors not found in traditional productions of the opera.
[Below: Lieutenant Zuniga (Brad Walker, left) attempts to put the make on an unconvinced Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The opera opens with a soldier who has obviously committed some infraction, stripped to his skivvies, holding a rifle at arms length and taking laps around the platoon until, exhausted, he collapses and must be carried away.
The image some will find homoerotic and certainly suggests aggressively masculine methods of enforcing discipline.
The presence of women – virtually of whom are gypsies, tobacco factory workers, and other members of the underclass – has a wild effect on the men. They leap onto the top of a telephone booth in which Carmen is making a call.
Their chief officer, Lieutenant Zuniga (Illinois bass-baritone Brad Walker, also an Adler Fellow), climbs up a flagpole to give directions when the cigarette girls gather around him.
[Below: Lieutenant Zuniga (Brad Walker, on flagpole) tries to calm down the fighting tobacco factory women; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Corporal Morales (California baritone Edward Nelson, an Adler Fellow) and Lieutenant Zuniga had their traditional things to do in the first and second acts, but in this staging, they also portrayed wild, orgiastic behavior that had few parallels in San Francisco Opera performance history.
Walker’s Zuniga was ridden like a bull by the gypsy women, while Nelson’s Morales, stripped to the waist, displayed no inhibitions in the intoxicating mix of alcohol and women.
Bielto’s Spanish Perspective
For his “Carmen”, director Bielto attempted to give a more “Spanish” view of the essence of bullfighting than that suggested by the Bizet.
To reinforce the idea that ritual is the dominant element in bullfighting, for the orchestral prelude to the fourth act, Torero (Brazilian dancer Marcos Vedovetto), who represents a bullfighter on the eve of a bullfight, strips off his clothes. Totally nude (on a darkened stage) Vedovetto’s Torero symbolically encounters – on the bull’s natural territory – the bull that he will meet the following day .
[Below: A bull signboard, the advertising symbol for Spain’s Soberano Brandy, looms over a gathering of smugglers that has been joined by Don Jose (Adam Diegel, center, at car door); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I enthusiastically recommend the production for both the newcomer to opera and the veteran opera-goer, noting that some patrons feel uneasy about a few rawer moments.
I have seen all the principal cast members (my report on the alternate cast is found at Review: Roberts, Jagde and Dehn in “Carmen” – May 29, 2016).
Although recognizing differences between the performances of the pairs of artists sharing the roles of Carmen, Don Jose, Micaela and Escamillo, I will not argue for one cast over the other.