Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: Roberts, Jagde and Dehn in “Carmen” – May 29, 2016

June 2nd, 2016

I previously reported on one cast for San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2016 production of “Carmen”, based on director Calixto Bielto’s famous (or, depending on one’s viewpoint, infamous) conceptualization [see Review: A Spanish “Carmen” from Calixto Bielto, May 28, 2016] in which Ginger Costa-Jackson, Adam Diegel, Erika Grimaldi and Michael Sumuel were respectively Carmen, Don Jose, Micaela and Escamillo.

The next afternoon I attended a performance in which the summer’s other scheduled performers – Irene Roberts (Carmen), Brian Jagde (Don Jose), Ellie Dehn (Micaela) and Zachary Nelson (Escamillo) appeared.

Irene Roberts’ Carmen

At the time of her San Francisco Opera debut as Giulietta, I predicted an important career for California mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts [see Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013]. Her Carmen provided further evidence of the solid foundation for that prediction.

Roberts displayed all the elements necessary for mastery of this iconic role – a warm, sultry mezzo voice, with power and expressiveness, and an ability to project a woman who is at once capable of dominating men publicly while privately showing vulnerability and insecurity.

[Below: Irene Roberts as Carmen; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Brian Jagde’s Don Jose

New York tenor Brian Jagde has emerged as one of the generation’s important young spinto tenors. A spinto has the vocal weight for which many of the great tenor roles of opera were written, yet that category of tenor is in relatively scarce supply internationally.

As Don Jose, his voice showed the requisite power needed for Don Jose’s outbrusts of anger and despair in the second, third and fourth acts, and the sensitivity to be convincing in La fleur que tu m’avais jetée  – the second act “Flower Song” when he first professes his love for Carmen.

[Below: Brian Jagde as Don Jose; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Jagde has stated his intention to move cautiously into heavier vocal territory [see Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Jagde].

I have reported on his recent success with Dvorak’s Tristanesque role of the Prince [see Review: Powerful Performances by Martinez, Jagde in “Rusalka” – Houston Grand Opera, January 29, 2016]. Jagde is announced for the big-voiced role of Radames in Verdi’s “Aida” in San Francisco Opera in November 2016 and credible rumors suggest future assignments in major opera houses as Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot” and Enzo in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”.

Ellie Dehn’s Micaela

Minnesota lyric soprano Ellie Dehn already has an impressive resume of roles at the San Francisco Opera, including lead roles in all three of Mozart’s operas with Da Ponte libretti (the Countess in “Nozze di Figaro”, Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni” and  Fiordiligi in “Cosi fan Tutte”).

I have reported on these roles and on her Musetta in Puccini’s “La Boheme” in San Francisco [Review: Crocetto, Berrugi, Dehn, Mulligan Star in Well-sung, Intelligently-Acted “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 15, 2014] and San Diego.

The technical skill, including breath control and vocal precision, needed for Mozart and the expansive lyricism of Puccini’s Musetta served Dehn well for the role of Micaela.

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


In my experience, Dehn has never disappointed, nor did she here. Her first act duet with Jagde’s Jose was beautifully sung (enough to forgive the anachronistic selfies that Jose and Micaela indulge in). Her third act anthem Je dit que rien ne m`épouvante was appropriately eloquent.

Zachary Nelson’s Escamillo

Another young artist, only recently a student at Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy of the Vocal Arts, is baritone Zachary Nelson, of whom one expects a brilliant future.

In his appearances in Santa Fe, I praised his Figaro [Santa Fe Opera Reverentially Revives “Nozze di Figaro” – June 29, 2013] and lauded his Malatesta [Review: Ovations for Laurent Pelly’s Daffy “Don Pasquale” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2014].

As a performer in this Bielto-inspired “Carmen”, he held his own physically as Escamillo, but I found his vocal performance to be less interesting than the comic Mozart and Donizetti roles I had so enjoyed him performing.

[Below: Escamillo (Zachary Nelson, center) invites Carmen (Irene Roberts, right, in front of convertible and the smugglers to his next bullfight; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


As noted in the previous review, much of the charm and force of the production are the performances of the comprimario artists – Carmen’s partners in crime Frasquita (Amina Edris), Mercedes (Renee Rapier), El Duncairo (Daniel Cilli) and El Remendado (Alex Boyer), as well as the officers Zuniga (Brad Walker) and Morales (Edward Nelson) and the Torero (dancer Marcos Vedovetto).

A “Carmen” on the Edge

Bielto’s change of the century (and even the continent) in which the story takes place does not affect the basic story of Carmen and Don Jose at all.

Carmen signals a sexual interest in Corporal Don Jose. He reciprocates with a desire to possess her, even though he destroys his career as a soldier in the process. She refuses to submit to him, even though she realizes it will result in both their deaths.

[Below: Carmen (Irene Roberts, left) suggests that if Don Jose (Brian Jagde, right) would release her from captivity, she would rendezvous with him at Lillas Pastia’s tavern; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


However, Bizet and his librettists created a vivid spatial world in which that basic story takes place – a soldiers’ outpost, a nearby cigarette factory that employs Carmen, the Pastias tavern that serves as a front for smugglers, the smugglers’ rendezvous point, and the vicinity of a bullfight arena.

The libretto provides multiple linkages between these spaces – soldiers frequent and bullfighters know about Pastias’ tavern. The smugglers’ hideaway can be accessed with some effort by bullfighters and Don Jose’s hometown girl.

Bielto emphasizes the masculine isolation of the soldiers’ world. The regiment becomes manic in the presence of the few women – gypsies and tobacco factory workers – with whom they interact.

[Below: the men of the regiment surround the telephone booth in which Carmen (Irene Roberts, front center) has just made a call; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The sex-starved environment that Bielto has created empowers Carmen in her manipulation of men.

[Below: Carmen (Irene Roberts, above) engages in some sex play with Lieutenant Zuniga (Brad Walker, below); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


There is no doubt that Carmen and her companions Frasquita and Mercedes are quite familiar with the responsiveness of the men and especially their officers to drunken behavior and sexual excess.

The “straight guy” is Don Jose (who in Mérimée’s novella has his own dark past), with obvious affection for his hometown girlfriend Micaela and ailing mother.

[Below: Corporal Morales (Edward Nelson, right) shows some sexual interest in Micaela (Ellie Dehn, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The wilder the behavior of Zuniga and Morales (and in the staging in San Francisco they live very much on the wild side), the more Carmen is attracted to the man who intends to be incorruptible. It is after Don Jose gives into his own passions that Carmen begins to lose interest in him.

Italian conducter Carlos Montanaro presided over the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, which performed excellently.

The sets were by Spanish designer Alfons Flores, the costumes by Spanish designer Mercé Paloma. California designer Gary Marder had responsibility for the lighting, Scottish director Ian Robertson for the San Francisco Opera Chorus.

Especially noteworthy was the aggressive third act knife fight between Escamillo and Don Jose taking place on the hoods and tops of Mercedes-Benz sedans, staged by New York Fight Director Dave Maier.


I believe that the San Francisco Opera’s new staging of “Carmen” gives deep insights into the story, and I recommend it strongly, with any of the casts offered, both for the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.

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