Arts & Entertainment

Review: A provocative ‘Carmen’ returns to San Francisco Opera

Matthew Polenzani and J’Nai Bridges star in San Francisco Opera's production of "Carmen." (Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera)

“Carmen,’’ that naughty French opera about a willful woman who dooms herself and her lover to a tragic death, returned to San Francisco Opera this week to begin the summer season.

The opera has been dressed up in various exotic ways over time: as a Gypsy pageant, as a Parisian revue, and Oscar Hammerstein wrote a lively version for Broadway with a Cuban cast called “Carmen Jones.’’

Francesca Zambello’s 2006 production, co-produced with Washington National Opera,  is comfortably traditional, with no suggestions of trendy post-modern camp, and if the by-the-book re-staging by Denni Sayers suggests that it is just a routine outing, it isn’t, because Bizet’s glorious music is both well sung and energetically led by conductor James Gaffigan.

Gaffigan’s challenge was to deal with a cast in which the two front-runners are singing their roles for the first time on a main stage; not a minor concern, but one that turned out to add some plus points to the performance.

American mezzo J’Nai Bridges sings with a dusky, somewhat light voice, matched with sure physicality and dramatic ease.  Her Habanera is all-out vocally seductive, and when she dances the Act II Seguidilla for Don Jose, it is a moment of unleashed vocal and physical passion that makes her love for him unusually persuasive.

American tenor Matthew Polenzani as Don José, a soldier in Napoleon’s army who goes AWOL for Carmen, has the vocal forces to partner Bridges; occasional dramatic missteps served to underline not only the fact of his first foray into the role, but also his feelings of desperation over her rejection. The love of the two for each other though brief was driven by some real electricity, and the dark finale acted out on a nearly empty stage was potent.

Romanian soprano Anita Hartig shines in her company debut as Don José’s former girlfriend Micaëla, singing with silvery, sure high lines, and Kyle Ketelsen’s toreador Escamillo, the role in which he made his SFO debut in 2006, was both vocally buoyant and dramatically restrained to good effect.

Two visual downers: the white saddle horse upon which Escamillo makes his  entrance (the bullfighter would have had an Arabian mount at the very least), and Carmen’s gown in the finale looked like something Martha Washington might have worn to a tea. Adler Fellows SeokJong Baek (Moralès), Ashley Dixon (Mercèdés) and Natalie Image (Frasquita) were standouts.

Chorus work is all-important in “Carmen,’’ and the Act I children’s chorus was stunning, while Ian Robertson’s opera chorus sang lustrously and brought considerable drama to the stage. How the lyric art form has changed: Bizet’s original 1875 chorus threatened to strike when asked to sing and move at the same time.

There are five more “Carmen’’ performances through June 29 at the War Memorial Opera House; Michelle Merrill conducts on June 20. For more details, and show times, visit the San Francisco Opera website.