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Monday, November 21, 2011

Bizet's Carmen at SF Opera Is Strangely Lifeless

Posted By on Mon, Nov 21, 2011 at 10:40 AM

  • Cory Weaver

Georges Bizet's 1875 Carmen is among the most frequently staged operas in the standard repertoire, a testament to the work's accessibility and enduring popularity with audiences. Yet, paradoxically, its very ubiquity may operate at cross-purposes with its appeal -- given that the opera is performed so often, and given that its distinctive music has been appropriated by countless films, commercials, cartoons, and every third figure skater in the Winter Olympics, this reviewer was not exactly counting the days until she could schlep over to the opera house for more of the same.

It's essential that productions of Carmen find ways to remain fresh, but Sunday's performance had the perfunctory feel of a late-September baseball game between two cellar-dwelling teams that are only still playing because the schedule dictates that they must.

The current production (directed by Jose Maria Condemi) is a recreation of one first staged at SF Opera in 1981, and frankly, it's difficult to understand why the company bothered acquiring it in 2002 from its previous, Zurich-based owners.

In contrast with the sets for this season's Don Giovanni and Xerxes, which fully exploited the opera house's deep stage, Carmen's monolithic walls and mountains were positioned so close to the front of the stage that the many crowd scenes feel positively claustrophobic. And whereas the sets for Don Giovanni and Xerxes added interpretive nuance to the performances, the edifices in Carmen accomplish little beyond signaling time and place.

Unfortunately, the flatness of the sets was largely unmitigated by the performers who inhabit them. While the program notes describe the opera's eponymous heroine as "thrilling but dangerous," "captivating," and "capricious," mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili calls to mind adjectives like "blasé" and even "bored" -- though her powerful, richly textured voice seemed ideal for the role, her affect was curiously detached throughout. She duly vamped it up, tossed her hair, and bared some leg when the action required, but never seemed fully invested in bringing the Gypsy temptress to life. Her technically adept but strangely lifeless account of the "Habanera" -- and the tepid applause that followed -- set the tone for the rest of the performance.

Tenor Thiago Arancam was far more convincing as Don José, the soldier whose obsessive love for Carmen ultimately undoes them both, though his otherwise supple voice seemed to give out during the final act. Paulo Szot brought a serviceable baritone and wooden acting to the role of Escamillo, his Tony Award (for South Pacific) notwithstanding. As the tediously virtuous Micaëla, Don José's pre-Carmen sweetheart, soprano Sara Gartland got off to a tentative start but recovered nicely in her Act III scenes with Arancam. Susannah Biller's Frasquita, Wayne Tigges' Zuniga, and Timothy Mix's La Dancaïre stood out among the minor roles.

But in an opera stuffed with knife fights, bullfights, and even girlfights, the real theatrics issued forth from the orchestra pit. Music director Nicola Luisotti -- never one to skimp on passion -- conducted as though possessed by the demonic powers attributed to the opera's heroine. He shook his salt-and-pepper mane, he gesticulated like a coked-up Sorcerer's Apprentice, he even hopped up and down like a habitué of punk shows.

The orchestra responded beautifully, drawing applause before the curtain even rose for a spectacular rendition of the opening prelude. Luisotti can sometimes let his exuberance get the better of him, but not so on Sunday -- his reading of the tender third-act prelude was a model of sensitivity and restraint. The orchestra's heroics were a reminder that Carmen can transcend cliché; sadly, the other elements conspired to render it a three-and-a-half-hour drag.

Carmen runs through December 4 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), S.F. Tickets are $21-$330; call 864-3330 or visit Sung in French, with English supertitles. Rachvelishvili will sing the title role on November 23; Kendall Gladen will appear in the remaining performances. Giuseppe Finzi will conduct on December 2 and 4.

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Emily Hilligoss


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