Carmen, by Georges Bizet, is one of the most-performed operas out there, and its tunes pop up in myriad cultural forums, from The Bad News Bears to Sesame Street to The Muppet Show. Many people can probably hum either “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (aka the Habanera) or “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” (aka the Toreador Song) without even realizing the source. My personal favorite of these iterations is Gilligan’s Island, where Gilligan performs “To Be or Not To Be” to the Habanera and Skipper as Polonius sings “Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be” to the “Toreador Song.” My childhood, let me show it to you.

As for the opera itself, my live viewing had been limited to what I not-so-lovingly refer to as “The Disco Carmen” at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Not that the performance itself was so bad, but the set was god-awful—basically a huge tilted ramp taking up half the stage with a disco ball above it. That’s it. I had taken my elderly aunt out for a night on the town so I had been hoping for something really spectacular. How do you do that to Carmen, which provides such great opportunities for sets and costumes?

In any case, I was really hoping that this performance would drive that one out of my mind. Which it mostly did. Visually, at least. I thought the sets were very well done, perhaps my favorites of the season. Keeping the main outer building shell, the transitions to the smaller set pieces of the cigarette factory, tavern, smugglers’ cave, and the bullfighting arena were smooth and believable. The costumes were also impressive, as they were varied, but relatively restrained. I imagine it is easy to go overboard with something like Carmen and this production didn’t (Turandot, I’m looking at you).

Lillas Pastia’s tavern. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Outside the bullfighting arena. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Unfortunately, aurally, this production left much to be desired. While Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen had a lovely, rich tone to her voice, I really couldn’t get over her atrocious French pronunciation and appreciate her singing. I was sort of surprised at this since, although she was filling in relatively last-minute for Kate Aldrich, she seems to have played this role plenty of times. Not that the rest of the main cast was much better, both Sara Gartland, who played Micaëla, and Wayne Tiggis, who played Lieutenant Zuniga, could have used more coaching in this area.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical, but, while I accept that I’m not going to catch all the words in Italian productions, somehow I feel I should be able to follow an opera in French without resorting to subtitles or the libretto. It wasn’t until the smugglers came in that I realized “it’s not me, it’s you,” and so I want to make particular mention of Timothy Mix and Daniel Montenegro for taking such care in their roles as Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado. Also, the children’s chorus was spot on in their French pronunciation and did a great job overall. Finally, thank you to San Francisco Opera for engaging Gabriel Laude as the young guide. It was a relief to have such a long speech spoken with native accuracy.

Thiago Arancam as Don José. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Again, this is not to say that the singing itself was bad. I thought that Thiago Arancam, who held his own last year against the terrific Ainhoa Arteta and Plácido Domingo in Cyrano de Bergerac, made an excellent Don José (who let’s face it, actually carries this opera, which is really all about Don José’s journey, not Carmen’s). Sara Gartland also made the significantly less vibrant Micaëla come alive, especially in her final aria. Susannah Biller as Frasquita and Cybele Gouverneur as Mercédès made the most of their small parts and I thoroughly enjoyed their “Mêlons! Coupons” fortune-telling number with Carmen. Vocally, Paulo Szot didn’t quite live up to the power of the Toreador Song, but he had great stage presence as the matador who steals Carmen’s heart.

Paulo Szot as Escamillo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

All in all, I enjoyed this production for what it was, but I partly wish I had had the foresight of Opera Tattler to switch out my Carmen subscription tickets for Xerxes.

Carmen has two more performances with Anita Rachvelishvili on November 20th and 23rd, and with Kendall Gladen on November 26th and 29th and December 2nd and 4th.