Grand Opera in All But Definition Returns to the War Memorial

Thiago Arancam (Don Jose) and Kendall Gladen (Carmen). Photo by Cory Weaver.

San Francisco Opera, “Carmen,” Nov. 6, 2011

By JANOS GEREBEN

The musical definition of “grand opera” is a work all sung, without spoken text. That is patently untrue about the original Opéra-Comique version of Bizet’s “Carmen” which returned to an extended run today to the San Francisco Opera for the umpteenth time.

(Specifying “umpteen,” courtesy of SFO Archivist Kori Lockhart: 167 performances, putting “Carmen” in fourth place after “La Bohème,” 221; “Madama Butterfly,” 195.)

It’s hard to think of another opera that has so much spoken dialogue as this (kudos to the unidentified French language coach), and yet, in size, this is very grand – or, at least big – opera.

Nicola Luisotti is leading an orchestra of 62 and nine brass backstage. On the stage: 13 principals, 60 members of Ian Robertson’s SFO Chorus, 40 children from the SF Girls and SF Boys Choruses, 44 supernumeraries…

But the reason for this opera’s popularity – it is among the most frequently performed works – is not so much an “Aida”-like spectacle as its music. Passionate, lyrical, unforgettably melodic, Bizet’s music is the major reason to return to “Carmen” again and again. It also serves as an excellent introduction to the genre.

Under Luisotti’s direction the music came across well balanced and in rich details, especially during orchestral passages, as woodwinds, strings, and brass all excelled, quiet moments shining with a glow. Otherwise, there were times the grand gestures and climaxes the conductor clearly called for didn’t quite come through from a cast performing on various levels.

Perhaps the best example of everything working together at the opening matinee was the Act I Children’s Chorus – orchestra, voices, action all blending in a charming scene, which all too often turns tedious. This one was exactly right.

With three singers sharing the title role in 11 performances, it’s difficult to keep track of it all. A well-experienced Carmen, Kendall Gladen sang the opening performance and will on Nov. 9; the others are divided between Kate Aldrich and the debuting Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili.

Gladen, acting up a storm and being more cute than “the devil” she is supposed to be, filled the War Memorial with a big, warm, supple voice, even if the sound was not sustained at all times, and even dropped to near-audible levels.

Still, she was the star, especially against the inconsistent vocal performance of the Don José, Thiago Arancam. The tenor has a fine lyrical voice, without much ping, but there is audible effort in hitting high notes or increasing the volume.

In the tiny role of Morales, Trevor Scheunemann made an excellent impression. In the big role of Escamillo, the debuting Paulo Szot did not. There is no better setup for a big aria than the “Toreador Song,” and yet Szot provided neither the volume nor the presence required. The aria, rather than the performance, received big applause, as it always does.

Cybele Gouverneur’s Mercédès and Susannah Biller’s Frasquita sounded fine individually, there were problems in the ensemble numbers, but the big quartet (with Timothy Mix and Daniel Montenegro) came through like gangbusters.

Daniel Montenegro (Le Remendado), Kendall Gladen (Carmen), Susannah Biller (Frasquita), Cybele Gouverneur (Mercedes)and Timothy Mix (Le Dancaire). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Veteran opera fans have treasured memories of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1981 original production, of which this is a 2002 Ponnelle-revised version from Zürich, directed by Jose Maria Condemi. Gone is the blinding Seville sun against the white walls, the palpable heat of the place, Ponnelle’s wonderful stage direction.

With Condemi, who has done some good work since his Merola days, Zuniga (Wayne Tigges) ends up as a hysterical clown, Carmen and Don Jose assume the missionary position too many times, and traffic is conducted poorly for the large crowds.

And yet, through it all, the music is there, Luisotti has at least the orchestra under control, and with the revolving title roles and more performances, this may yet become a “Carmen” to take place among .

And yet, through it all, the music is there, Luisotti has at least the orchestra under control, and with the revolving title roles and more performances, this may yet become a “Carmen” to take place among the well-remembered ones.

Kendall Gladen (Carmen) and Paulo Szot (Escamillo). Photo by Cory Weaver.

CARMEN: KENDALL GLADEN (NOV 6, 9)
DON JOSÉ: THIAGO ARANCAM
MICAËLA: SARA GARTLAND
ESCAMILLO: PAULO SZOT *
FRASQUITA: SUSANNAH BILLER
MERCÉDÈS: CYBELE GOUVERNEUR
LE DANCAÏRE: TIMOTHY MIX
LE REMENDADO: DANIEL MONTENEGRO
MORALÈS: TREVOR SCHEUNEMANN
ZUNIGA: WAYNE TIGGES
LILLAS PASTIA: YUSEF LAMBERT *

PRODUCTION CREDITS
CONDUCTOR: NICOLA LUISOTTI
DIRECTOR: JOSE MARIA CONDEMI
SET DESIGNER: JEAN-PIERRE PONNELLE
COSTUME DESIGNER: WERNER JUERKE
LIGHTING DESIGNER: CHRISTOPHER MARAVICH
CHORUS DIRECTOR: IAN ROBERTSON

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4 Responses to Grand Opera in All But Definition Returns to the War Memorial

  1. Peter Canterbury says:

    I think you did not stay for the third and fourth act. Because Sara Gartland was a discovery as Micaela, her aria was fantastic and she looked beautiful. Also you don’t talk about the overwhelming volume and balance problems in the 4th act. Dissapointed that you wrote three sopranos. This is obviously a mezzo role.

  2. David Gregson says:

    Thank you for your post. Mr. Gereben corrected his mistake quickly last night after I posted his review — so the correct information should appear now. I had been out of town (San Diego) to see the Los Angeles “Romeo and Juliet” (on which I am still working at this moment) and had to go to bed without attending to more work at the late hour and after a slightly terrifying drive up and down the coast in the rain.

    David Gregson

  3. Karen Coule Mckareen says:

    For me, Mr. Szot was the best! I saw the matinee on Nov. 6th and his Escamillo was just amazing. Beautiful singing, diction and of course acting. His aria in act II was fantastic with gorgeous high notes. In act III, the fight between Jose and Escamillo was the best I’ve seen and after that, he managed to sing all the high F’s masterly. Great artist and singer. Oh, and the fact he looks so sexy doesn’t bothered me…
    Karen Coyle

  4. Martin Murray says:

    Karen,

    I agree with you. Szot was amazing! A true star on stage.
    I also liked Mrs. Gartland and of course Mrs. Gladen.
    They don’t have much experience onstage but
    they are very gifted artists too.
    A revival is always a revival…not very exciting….

    Martin

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