Stage Director
What is different in 2011 from all the mountings of the Ponnelle production since 1981, is that Jose Maria Condemi, the stage director, has chosen to depart significantly from Ponnelle's stage director's playbook. Condemi, like Ponnelle, is brilliant in his attention to detail and in the motivations of the characters. Condemi has staged this opera before, including working elsewhere with Gladen. For my interview with him, see Rising Stars: An Interview with Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi, Part I.

As he did last Summer in a physical production based on Frank Corsaro's ideas about staging Gounod's "Faust", Condemi approached the task of including or excluding Corsaro-inspired stage business eclectically. He has done likewise with Ponnelle's.

Therefore, although some of Ponnelle's staging is retained (Zuniga smashing through the door of Pastia's tavern; the children standing at the footlights in the final scene to sing about the procession of the bullfighters), Ponnelle details big and small have disappeared (Frasquita and Mercedes communicating with Carmen in Act I just prior to her escape; Don Jose escorting Micaela to the bullring in the final scene, with Micaela watching Carmen's murder below).

Although Carmen's presence dominates every scene, the opera's story is about the destructiveness of her encounter with the socially inexperienced Basque corporal, Don Jose. Brazilian Thiago Arancam, returns to San Francisco after last year's performances as Christian in Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac" mounted for Arancam's mentor, Placido Domingo (see my review at Domingo's Swashbuckling, Cinematic San Francisco "Cyrano" - November 6, 2010.)

The role of Don Jose is most often sung by spinto tenors at the War Memorial (this was the role of spinto tenor Marco Berti's San Francisco Opera debut and the Don Joses of Jon Vickers, Franco Bonisolli and Placido Domingo in this house are among my fond memories of previous San Francisco "Carmens".) Arancam's voice, at least in the 3200 seat War Memorial, seems of a more lyric weight. Yet when expressing Don Jose's despair, Arancam summons up a muscular sound, to me reminiscent at times of Vickers. Trained at La Scala, and still early in his career, his repertory even now is dominated by spinto assignments.

Arancam's interactions with Gladen in Condemi's staging, provided yet another insight into the complex relationship between Don Jose and Carmen.

One senses a true affection beyond just sexual attraction between these two characters that prevails almost through the entire opera, even as Don Jose's jealousy and possessiveness makes Carmen's withdrawal from the relationship inevitable. (Perhaps Carmen senses a Tristanesque satisfaction in the "love-death" fate for herself and Don Jose that she reads in the cards.)

Condemi made a point in printed comments that Carmen and Jose as gypsy and Basque are outsiders in the rigid Spanish society (of which the military officers such as Zuniga are part). Jose is a vicitm of circumstances. He and Carmen had agreed that they did not belong together, and he would have left the tavern, with only his memory of this strange encounter with Carmen that caused him to be busted a rank and to spend in month in jail.

Had not the inebriated (in Condemi's staging) Zuniga broken down the tavern door, Jose would not have been goaded into a career-destroying fight with Zuniga (that Condemi makes even more violent by having the gypsies force Jose to slash Zuniga's face). Jose's attack on Zuniga limits Jose's choices to pursuing a life with Carmen or spending the rest of his life incarcerated (if not hung for insubordination and attacking an officer). With only those two options, Don Jose's choice would have been that of (virtually) Everyman's.

But Condemi's changes were almost invariably dramatically valid. He eliminated the first act freeze frame where all characters are motionless as Carmen and Don Jose gaze at each other while Bizet's "fate theme" sounds. If Micaela's extra-textual appearance at the bull-ring has been jettisoned, he uses the Ponnelle device of a face in the upper window to a chilling effect. It is Don Jose that peers down at Carmen, and he is spotted first by Carmen's sister gypsies, and then Carmen herself.

Condemi touches are everywhere. In the third act smuggler's hideaway, suggesting that the sexual relationship between Don Jose and Carmen still burns bright, Don Jose feels her stomach to see if she might be pregnant.

In this production, beyond the two principals, I found the comprimario roles of the officers (Wayne Tigges' Zuniga and Trevor Scheunemann's Morales) and of Carmen's gypsy companions - Susannah Biller's Frasquita, Cybele Gouverneur's Mercedes, Daniel Montenegro's Remendado and Timothy Mix' Duncaire - to be as fine as any Team Carmen assembled at the War Memorial previously.

Paulo Szot, whose successes on Broadway in the revival Rodgers' and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" have established his wider fame, was an avuncular Escamillo, superstitious, seemingly fearful that all of his high risk activities (including pursuing the love of the gypsy Carmen). He was surely not the dangerous, vigorous rival of Don Jose that we usually expect.

Sara Gartland's Micaela provided a youthful image (the character is 17). The San Francisco Opera Chorus, as is their custom, was excellent.

Opera Warhorses
Related Link
Back to List
Back to Top