Carmen — San Francisco Opera Performance — Review
San Francisco Opera Performance
May 31, 2016
This opera has very little substance. The characters are shallow and lack psychological complexity. One gleans no insight from this story and it carries some racist overtones. Carmen is a volatile, immature, self-centered, imperious, manipulative, narcissistic, extremely unattractive woman. Don Jose is a hapless, foolhardy, weak, patsy, who falls for Carmen. He is engaged to the uninteresting, pathetic Micaela who represents his tie to this mother. She is always reminding him of his mother’s ailing condition and that he must disrupt his life and go to her, and pressures him with guilt to keep him bound to herself and his mother. Don Jose in falling for Carmen is attempting to break free from this suffocating tie. But it is a bad choice, and he remains trapped in this unpromising attachment to their mutual destruction. It is hard to feel sorry at the end of this tragedy. One feels that a cluster bomb might have been more suitable.
They saved money on sets. I would call the staging “contemporary minimal.” They probably didn’t even need a set designer. They spent the money instead on large choral ensembles of soldiers and children and incidental extras. I couldn’t figure out what all these children were doing in this. It was hard to discern the time period in which this was supposed to be taking place. There were cars that looked to be from the 1980s, lawn chairs, camping coolers and a couple taking a selfie of themselves with a small digital camera that suggested a very modern era, yet the soldiers’ uniforms seemed to suggest fascist armies from the 1930s. And what were the soldiers doing in this anyway? The ambiguous context did not support the need for soldiers. For the most part, the actors wore their street clothes, which further obscured a fixed time period and also enabled them to save money on costumes. I think this confused jumble of stage props and a lack of clear definition of time and place reflects the director’s lack of a clear conception of what to do with this opera. Trying to save this opera by obliterating everything except these poorly drawn characters and the story line that lacks a core coherence only underlines the mediocrity of this opera.
The opera first premiered in 1875 in Paris to poor reviews. The composer Georges Bizet was crushed by the bad reception and died a few months later at the young age of 36. Bizet’s unfortunate demise, however, does not improve the opera. If there is any lesson that can be taken away from his personal tragedy it is the need to be resilient and to bounce back from failure, rather than letting it destroy one.
The music has some catchy, memorable tunes, and probably provides the sole reason for the continued popularity of this opera, but they are light and somewhat playful and do not set a proper mood for this misguided tragedy. I would not regard Bizet as a composer of great stature.
Carmen is a gypsy. This, from the outset, defines her “otherness,” which would have been immediately grasped by a contemporary audience from nineteenth century Paris. Gypsies, or Roma, have been a persecuted minority in Europe for seven centuries and have been kept at the bottom of society by discrimination and marginalization to this very day. Bizet, by incarnating Carmen as a member of this despised minority, is disavowing her character and affirming a negative stereotype of her people. He is setting her up, inviting the audience to view her with aspersion, which the 19th century Parisian audience did, and then he kills her off, which is both a judgment on Carmen and on the people she represents. So the opera has a racist quality to it as well as a conservatism that upholds the superiority of French values, culture, and sensibilities.
The strongest performance in this production, I would say, was given by Michael Sumuel, who played the matador, Escamillo.
The production does not have a lot to offer. It was an attempt to infuse some life into something that never had much viability to begin with.