By Elsa Tranter
Photo credit: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
George Bizet’s opera Carmen, one of the all-time warhorses, came with a real horse last night— more about it later…. This opera has been produced in San Francisco 33 previous times since 1927, which is about once every three years! This was one of three operas that are in the summer season, and it is possible to see all three in one weekend—a real operatic marathon.
An opera that is so familiar and popular can be a blessing or a curse—there was an almost full house and good energy among the patrons; that must energize the performance and inspire the cast to give it their all. For the most part they came through—perhaps many in the audience were seeing it for the first, or second time.
American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges is making her first professional performances of the title role. She looks and acts a very sultry, fluid and emotional gypsy, very believable in the part. Her voice seemed often a little under-powered for the big house and didn’t project well. Her acting carried her through, though I’d have preferred a bigger sound.
Opposite her was the American tenor Matthew Polenzani, also making his role debut. He was a strong and heart-wrenching Don Jose. His big arias were thrilling and packed an emotional wallop. His acting was a little more staid than hers, but of course that’s part of the tension between them.
Rounding out one of the triangles—or should it be called edging out—(isn’t there almost always at least one triangle) in her SF Opera debut was Romanian soprano Anita Hartig as Micaela, the ‘good’ girl whom Don Jose was destined to marry. Her voice was sweet and charming and her demeanor innocent and winning, as it was supposed to be. But as the story progressed, she was more forceful than usual—perhaps the only one of the cast with a twenty-first century attitude, working harder to get her man (though of course she didn’t succeed). Her arias were especially compelling.
Edging out the other triangle was the bullfighter Escamillo, sung by American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, who has perform this role here in previous years. His voice seemed higher than I’m used to and not as forceful as Simon Estes or Phillip Skinner from past times. His acting was quite acceptable, from his first appearance on the horse—a bit of staging that we could have done without. The horse looked way too posh and almost bigger than life; to me it was not money well spent. But, according to the program notes, the horse, named Drogen, is a Gypsy Vanner associated with the Romani traveling people, so perhaps I’m a little off base.
The roles of the gypsy girls Frasquita and Mercedes were beautifully and brightly sung by soprano Natalie Image and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, both current SF Opera Adler Fellows. Their card trio with Carmen was particularly compelling. Smaller parts were sung well by baritone Seokjong Baek as Morales, bass David Leigh as Zuniga, tenor Zhengyi Bai as Remendado, and tenor Christopher Oglesby as Dancairo.
The SF opera chorus (under the direction of Ian Robertson) filled in the background and rounded out the ensembles in the usual professional way—added to by a large children’s chorus, from the SF Francisco Girls and Boys Choruses. They were joined by company dancers. The excellent S.F. orchestra was conducted by James Gaffigan, in his main stage debut.
The production was directed by Francesca Zambello, a long time stalwart at SF Opera (and recipient of the San Francisco Opera Medal). It was first produced here over 10 years ago and hasn’t been much updated.
The set design was quite simple—a series of curved adobe walls that could be shifted easily to form indoor or outdoor spaces. This worked well for most of the opera but wasn't too convincing as backdrop to the mountain hideaway. The costumes were more elegant, though they didn’t call attention to themselves and made everyone look fine—of course all the singers/dancers looked pretty fine to begin with.
The evening was satisfying but not overwhelming—it takes something really special to do that with such a familiar piece of music, and that didn’t happen.
Four performances remain: June 20, 23, 26 and 29.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.