July 24th, 25th and 26, we attended three classic, but very different operas at San Francisco Opera, Verdi’s Don Carlo, Janacek’s Jenufa, and Bizet’s Carmen. I enjoyed all three, but the first two were among the best productions and performances that I have ever experienced.
Don Carlo. Depending on how you look at it, Don Carlo, first presented in Paris with a French text in 1866, could be considered late middle or early late Verdi. Late, because it reflects greater maturity in Verdi’s style over the classic middle period, but still middle compared to the more through-composed later masterpieces of Otello and Falstaff. For a great deal of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, it was considered an unproduceable muddle that served as a practice run for Aida. However, Rudolph Bing staged it in 1950 as his introduction to the Metropolitan Opera, and since then, it has held the stage in one version or another. At first, it was presented almost exclusively in its four-act Italian version, but after the discovery of the original French libretto, it became all something of a “thing” to use that version. San Francisco Opera presented the 1885 Modena version, which uses an Italian libretto, but contains the First Act, that is, the Fontainebleau Scene, in which Don Carlo and Elisabetta meet, fall in the love and then are separated. Although, it lengthens the opera, I find the five-act version more satisfying because we can actually see the beginning of their relationship and we are introduced the love-duet motif that reoccurs later in the work.
Designer Zack Brown’s sets and Director Emilio Sagi’s staging are generally traditional and quite handsome with lots of grates and grill work, looking very Spanish. In at least a couple of places where the staging differed from tradition, it did not work well, the rather lame non-fire in the Auto-da-fe Scene, and the finale, where Don Carlo is merely escorted off stage by guards while the ghost of Charles V rails about the iniquities of the world. In the latter case; however, I case excuse the directorial choice because the normal ending in which Carlo disappears into Charles’ crypt is problematic in the first place.
Nicola Luisotti, the San Francisco Opera Music Director, conducted with great feeling for the music, which was beautifully played by the orchestra.
But, of course, it was the singing that made this production extraordinary. Tenor Michael Fabian sang not only beautifully, but also with great intensity. Having seen him twice before this production, once in the Santa Fe La Traviata and in Luisa Mller last year in San Francisco, I can say he has improved each time out, growing into a first class tenor. The seemingly ubiquitous, and outstanding Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, sang Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, forcefully and beautifully, expressing great sincerity in his love for Carlo and his desire for Flanders' liberation. One the hits of the evening was the “friendship duet” between the two. (A book I once read described this duet as a “vulgar effusion,” but I rather like it, especially when it returns during Rodrigo’s death scene). German bass René Pape sang a very good Philip II, if not as resplendent in voice or as moving as would be ideal.
For me, however, Ana Maria Martinez as Elisabetta was the best of the performers. Her “Tu che la vanità” was perfection itself and incredibly moving, and coming at the end of the opera, a fitting highlight of the evening.
Don Carlo was a great way to start our weekend of opera.
Jenufa. Next up, an opera completely unlike Don Carlo, Leos Janacek’s early Twentieth Century look at life in a small Moravian village, Jenufa. I have seen this opera once before in Los Angeles with the same sets (there are probably not that met Jenufa sets going around) in which the First Act and Third show a wheat field in the backgound, with two walls slanting outward toward the front of the stage, emphasizing the repressive, stultifying nature of Moravian village life. (Indeed, it must be a small village because virtually all the characters seem to be related in one way or another). Act II takes place in Kostelnicka’s house, which contains a huge rock, perhaps symbolizing Jenufa’s pregnancy. The music accompanying the singing is supposed to mirror the rhythms of Czech speech, something I could not, of course, verify, but I will say the orchestral music was rhythmic and beautiful, especially at climatic points, such as Kostelnicka’s “aria” in the Second Act and the transcendent conclusion.
The singers were all first class. Swedish soprano Malin Bystrom, was ideal for the role of Jenufa, acting and looking like a young, desperate village girl “in trouble.” Her singing was moving and beautiful. Veteran Finish soprano Karita Mattila, who I previously saw as Jenufa in Los Angeles, was similarly ideal in the role of stepmother Kostelnicka, singing powerfully and with great emotion, and even producing sympathy for this rather unpleasant character. The two primary male characters were well sung by tenor William Burden (Laca) and baritone Scott Quinn, (Steva). The orchestra, under the direction of Czech Jiri Belohlavek, was simply outstanding, and in some sense, was the star of the evening.
With Jenufa, our second night out was a memorable experience.
Carmen. I was eager to attend this Carmen because I wanted to see what bad-boy director Calixto Bieito, who originally conceived the production, was all about. I was underwhelmed. Other than updating the setting to Spanish North Africa in the 1950s with lots of classic Mercedes, and introducing a lot of sexual writing, as times, somewhat silly, there was nothing particularly original or insightful about this production, plus I missed the local color, such as Lillas Pasta’s tavern. The best singing of the evening was provided by tenor Brian Jagde, as Don José, who hit a beautiful mixed voice high note at the end of the Flower Song and sang powerfully in the final scene. Irene Robert’s Carmen is a work in progress. She is sexy with great legs, and very athletic, jumping on Zuniga’s back while he was standing. However, her ravishingly beautiful mezzo-soprano lacks the power and depth of a great Carmen. Ellie Dehn was a fine Micaela, played not as such as sweet personage as usual. Zachary Nelson was fine as Escamillo. Carlo Montanaro conducted with verve.