A Regrettable “Carmen” at San Francisco Opera Sunk by the Soloists

United StatesUnited States  Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Children’s Chorus, War Memorial Opera House, San Francis, 29.11.2011 (HS)


Director: José Maria Condemi
Set Designer: Jean Pierre Ponnelle
Costume Designer: Werner Juerk
Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti


Carmen: Kendall Gladen
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

Kendall Gladen as Carmen (c) Cory Weaver


San Francisco Opera wasted superb conducting by its music director, Nicola Luisotti, and outstanding work by its chorus and orchestra on as undistinguished a cast as the company has put on stage in years. For drawing audiences, it seems, Carmen is bulletproof; they come no matter who is singing, which is why the company is mounting 11 performances this season, more than any other opera in the repertoire. And yet, in more than three decades I can remember only two truly outstanding singers in the title role at this company: Olga Borodina in 1996 and Denyce Graves in 1991. José Cura was Borodina’s Don José, the only truly memorable tenor in the role here since Plácido Domingo in 1981.

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G.Bizet, Carmen,
C.Abbado, / LSO
P.Domingo, I.Cotrubas, S.Milnes et al.

I was going to give this go-round a pass, but after seeing Tuesday’s performance I’m too grumpy. Luisotti conducted with such passion, tension, such perfect timing and emphasis, the orchestra responsive and often brilliant, the chorus and children’s chorus exemplary in every way. What a shame the cast couldn’t live up to this promising musical frame. When the best voice belongs to Escamillo, you’re in trouble.

In a smaller house than the 3,000-seat War Memorial, perhaps Kendall Gladen would have had more impact in the title role. Setting aside that she’s a bit too sweet and girlish to make a believably earthy Gypsy woman, Gladen has the technique to sing Carmen’s musical line with all the notes Bizet wrote, and with a facility many mezzo sopranos cannot bring to the role. What she lacks is power in the chest voice to finish low-lying phrases with the dramatic punch they need. Sara Gartland looked charming as Micaëla, the country girl wandering into the big city of Seville or a mountain Gypsy camp. But the quavery voice could not find any lyric sweep in either of her arias.

On the male side, tenor Thiago Arancam’s nebbish-y looks could have worked as Don José if he were up against a powerful Carmen (Kate Aldritch was to have sung the role, but canceled due to illness). The strain on his voice was almost painful to listen to, however. It seemed constricted, petering out on the long lines in his arias. When he tried to rev it up for dramatic situations, it lost focus. Paulo Szot, the bass baritone who was a hit as Emile de Becque in South Pacific on Broadway, invested the toreador Escamillo with flair and bravado in large part with a focused if not particularly weighty vocal production. “Votre toast” actually had some sizzle.

The smuggling gang fared somewhat better, with Susannah Biller (Frasquita), Cybele Gouverneur (Mercédès), Timothy Mix (Dancaïre) and Daniel Montenegro (Remendado) joining Gladen in keeping pace with Luisotti’s rapid quintet in Act II and nicely distinguishing their characters. Wayne Tigges (Zuniga) also sang well and came off as appropriately smarmy as José’s commanding officer.

Director José Maria Condemi deftly moved the cast around Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s venerable sets, and succeeded in getting the spoken dialogue to sound pretty close to normal. It’s always tricky to stage Carmen’s seductiveness without turning her into a sexpot, but twice scenes finished with Carmen on her back wrapping her legs around a prone José, which may be a step too far even for the opera stage.

Bizet’s Carmen may be the warhorse of all operatic warhorses, but as Luisotti and his musical allies proved it can deliver the musical goods. It deserves a better cast.

Harvey Steiman