• by Philip Campbell
  • Sunday June 5, 2016
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 Irene Roberts in the title role of San Francisco's 'Carmen'
Irene Roberts in the title role of San Francisco's 'Carmen'

In a bold but calculated move, the San Francisco Opera opened its summer season last week with the U.S. premiere of Calixto Bieito's notorious production of Bizet's "Carmen."

The show will also be simulcast free at AT&T Park on July 2. If the Opera is offering only a mild parental advisory, check the Twittersphere for further advice. Blase San Francisco shouldn't have a problem, but surrounding counties might be in for something of a shock.

After years of shaking up the arts establishment with deconstructions of the classics that frequently include full-frontal nudity, sleazy sex and graphic violence, director Bieito remains controversial. He has been called everything from genius to the Quentin Tarantino of opera, but the truth lies somewhere in-between all the hype, praise and gasps of horror.

Amusing to note that at the beginning of his tenure as General Director, David Gockley was quoted in an interview calming the fears of the Bay Area Reporter's late opera critic Stephanie von Buchau and promising, "We won't be having Mr. Bieito or his ilk in San Francisco." Well, that was then, and this is now. The Catalan director's track record has proved mightily impressive since, and even his detractors admit "opera's shock jock" has a masterful way of forcing us to take a new look at repertoire gone stale with conservative tradition.

A little outrage has a big way of generating excitement, too. In the brave new world of social media, it might even spell success at the box office. Seeing a beautiful young male dancer languidly making matador passes in the buff on the big screen at AT&T should definitely signal a change in attitude to an art-form all-too-often considered stuffy and out-of-touch. Updating the action to modern-day Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in North Africa, Bieito's "Carmen" is typically bare to the bone and defiant. If critics have called him "Eurotrash," he gets his revenge filling a virtually bare stage with an entire company of euro trash: soldiers, gypsies and their pathetic camp followers.

This is a world dominated by machismo: Dangerous, hypersexual and seductive. If there is no Spanish equivalent for Latin women, there should be for this Carmen. Opportunistic, predatory and more than willing to use her body to get what she wants, she refuses to be victimized by the oppressive society roughly trying to tame her.

There is no point cataloguing the many instances of R-rated stage business. There is a lot of it, and it does run the gamut from disturbing to titillating, but I would still be surprised if anyone goes away without having faced their preconceptions. That is where I firmly side with Bieito and his self-professed "honesty." He takes you by the shoulders and forces a confrontation with the old and with the new. There is no doubt of his love for the music; he just wants you to get involved.

That is the juncture where the current production both hits and misses. The re-creation of the staging is expert, thanks to revival director Joan Anton Rechi making his SFO debut, and it even shows a little "punching up" here and there. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but opening night actually displayed more male toplessness than the original. But then, what's to complain? We can take it, and all those sweating and grunting extras only underscore the high levels of testosterone circling Carmen and her girlfriends Frasquita and Mercedes.

If all of the principal cast members had fully committed to the raw vitality of the concept, this would have been an undisputed win for Bieito's vision. Conductor Carlo Montanaro, also making his SFO debut, set a much too careful tone with his finesse and measured tempos. More urgency might have risked some mistakes, but the shenanigans onstage would have masked them.

There are two casts for some of the roles and numerous SFO debuts. Smaller parts were uniformly well-played by current Adler Fellows Edward Nelson as Morales (nice tats, dude), Brad Walker as Zuniga, and Amina Edris as Frasquita. Former Adler Fellow Renee Rapier was convincing, too, as Mercedes.

Soprano Ellie Dehn is a veteran at SFO, and her portrayal of Micaela as Carmen's determined rival for Don Jose's love is perfectly in step with Bieito's revisionism. She is less a timid village girl than a selfie-snapping adventuress.

Baritone Zachary Nelson (SFO debut) as the toreador Escamillo is less successful at pitching his character. His jaded playboy, looking to make his name with offers of money and flashy co-celebrity, is well-sung but a little too nice.

Tenor Brian Jagde is making a meal of operatic cowards at SFO. We still haven't forgotten his excellent Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and his current assignment singing Don Jose in all but one performance of the run is certainly testing his strength in the vocal department.

No worry, he is up to the task, and his "Flower Song" proved it. As an actor, his handsome face and brawny physique can explain Carmen's attraction to a hapless mama's boy, but we wish he had shown more anger and less anguish throughout the drama.

Mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts from Sacramento, CA, also looks perfect in the title role, but her diminutive (albeit sexy) stature can't help make us feel more protective than fascinated by her focused personification. She sings with a wonderfully produced tone that fills the vast house, but she is just a bit smaller and softer than her co-stars. Under any other circumstances, we would consider her Carmen a triumph. The spike heels help, but Roberts' physical stature inadvertently casts her back into victim mold, when the direction wants us to see her as the stubborn master of her fate.

"Carmen" continues through Sun. July 3, at the War Memorial Opera House. Info: