Arts & Events

An Underwhelming CARMEN at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday June 20, 2019 - 04:09:00 PM

Bizet’s Carmen is almost unimaginable without a dynamic, alluring, title-role singer. Unfortunately, the San Francisco Opera’s current Carmen, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges. is a strangely underwhelming Carmen. Her voice simply doesn’t project, nor does her acting. She’s just there, going through the motions we associate with Carmen, but never catching fire either vocally or dramatically. .Although J’Nai Bridges was undertaking the role of Carmen for the first time, there was reason to think she could bring it off successfully, based on her performance, one of the few good things, in the 2017 world premiere of John Adams’ woebegone Girls of the Golden West. But, no, already into its third of seven performances, on June 14 J’Nai Bridges’ Carmen was still, at best, a work in progress. 

Where vocal fireworks are concerned, they didn’t come from J’Nai Briidges. Nor did they come from tenor Michael Polanzani, who was also making a role-debut as Don Jose. Polanzani’s presence in Act I was, like that of J’Nai Bridgs, decidedly underwhelming. In Polanzani’s case, unlike that of J’Nai Bridges, part of the problem was in the staging. While the staging by Francesca Zambello gave every opportunity for J’Nai Bridges to shine in Act I, though she failed to do so, this same staging seemed to relegate Don Jose to a mere afterthought. As Don Jose, Polanzani just sat in a chair and buried himself in some military reports with his back turned to Carmen’s seductive machinations. Thus, it seemed gratuitous that he should suddenly, for little apparent reason, succumb to Carmen’s blandishments and agree to help her escape incarceration. Nor did Polanzani’s singing in Act I radiate any electricity. In fact, it wasn’t until late in Act II, in his aria, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”/”The flower you threw to me,” that Michael Polanzani gave any indication he might be a fine Don Jose.  

But, alas, here too the staging did him no help. In this key scene in the tavern of Lillas Pastia, Polanzani’s Don Jose grovels on the floor before Carmen like a simpering child. Perhaps in response to this staging that characterized him as a very childish individual, Michael Polanzani may have internalized this characterization and both sung and acted like a vacuous child who really hasn’t a clue about women. It may be a reasonable interpretation of the character of Don Jose, but it drastically lessened the amount of empathy we can feel for Don Jose.  

Fortunately, however, this production of Bizet’s Carmen had one character who possessed a mature grasp of matters of love and lust; and this was Micaela, the girl from Don Jose’s village, indeed, his village sweetheart. In the role of Micaela, Romanian soprano Anita Hartig was sensational! Her voice, rich, full, and vibrant with intensity of feeling, rang out loud and clear in one beautiful passage after another. She was not just the little village girl sent by Don Jose’s mama; she was also, even foremost, the woman who sincerely loved Don Jose and sought to disabuse him of his misguided obsession with Carmen. If ever there was a Micaela who might be an equal combatant to Carmen in the struggle for Don Jose’s soul, Anita Hartig was surely it. In any case, Anita Hartig was the one principal singer in this Carmen that never for an instant faded into the woodwork. Instead, Anita Hartig commanded the stage and commanded all the principals onstage in every scene where she appeared.  

Bass-baritone Kyle Kettelsen was an assertive Escamillo, the bullfighter who rides in on a gorgeous horse in Act II and by Act III supplants Don Jose as Carmen’s latest flame. Outside the bullring in Seville, where the final scene takes place, Don Jose confronts Carmen for one last time; and when she refuses to give in to his repeated insistence that they resume their love affair, Don Jose stabs Carmen with a knife and kills her. In this production, however, he does not then turn the knife upon himself.  

In minor roles, soprano Natalie Image as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon as Mercedes were excellent as two gypsy friends of Carmen’s. There was excellent choreography, in the Act II scene in the tavern of Lillas Pastia, by Denni Sayers, and it featured dancing by Blanche Hamilton as Manuelita. In the role of Don Jose’s superior officer, Zuniga, bass David Leigh sang forcefully. As Dancairo, leader of the gypsy smugglers, tenor Christopher Oglesby sang ably, as did baritone Seok Jong Baek as Morales and Zhengyi Bai as Remendado. The San Francisco Opera Chorus sang well under the direction of Ian Robertson. Conductor James Gaffigan did what little he could do to rescue a Carmen that, unfortunately, was lacking in true firepower. This Carmen production continues with performances June 20, 23, 26, and 29.