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Bizet with BVDs Headed to Hub


Ginger Costa-Jackson and Brian Jagde contrast footware.
Irene Roberts and Brian Jagde compare footwear.
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

SAN FRANCISCO—Would that Boston burghers had possessed the municipal wisdom to include in Government Center the equivalent of the dignified Doric cum Art Deco War Memorial Opera House which stands in pride along with three other theaters in San Francisco’s BeauxArts Civic Center. Its richly detailed and well-endowed public spaces invite us to a lofty and celebratory gilded auditorium which raises high our expectations for the production to come.

After a displeasingly brisk overture to Bizet’s Carmen, the great gold curtain grandly rose Wednesday . . .  on a wrinkled translucent gray movie screen fronted by a flagpole and telephone booth. Was this all we would see from our $396 seat? The opening scene, visually impoverished but for a soldier in his underpants and combat boots running punishment laps around the immobile soldiers’ chorus, transported us more to the gritty imagination of stage director Calixto Bieito’s “…wild and cruel universe full of primal virility” than to the stage of the Opéra Comique or the demimonde of Seville. According to SF Opera, their show was aimed at “fans of [Beyoncé’s] Lemonade, or Tarantino.” Such would have no trouble with the dialog cuts (did “coquette” really have to come through the supertitles as “bitch”?) or the dropping of repeats. They also probably would not have detected the few bars or lines removed here and there. But based on what this visitor is used to hearing, and on what at least one company violinist retains in memory, we detected some unfamiliar connections and non sequiturs.

As re-created by Bieito’s longtime collaborator Joan Anton Rechi, the gray and black stage vacuity stood in, according to the director’s manifesto, for the autonomous North African Spanish city of Ceuta in the post-Franco era. The conceit permitted such disarming touches as selfies during a love duet, the virginal Micaëla’s unlikely chin-flick (le barbe to Bizet) directed at Carmen, and a gypsy rumble staged in a parking lot with six electrified 1980s-era Mercedes Benz W123s. The insertion of a nude matador’s butt-slapping moonlight purification ritual during the Act III entr’acte must have been stimulated by motivations unrelated to the time and place of the setting. But come on guys: have the courage to make this scene visible rather than lighting it so coyly as to obscure the best parts. Nudity isn’t even banned in Boston anymore.

Michael Sumuel had the high notes as Escamilo
Gypsies and soldiers enjoy Escamilo Michael Sumuel’s high notes as the bull awaits his tumble. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Sounds much brighter and more exciting than we experience in the inadequate Shubert Theater rose powerfully from the pit via Carlos Montanaro’s forward-moving direction. The main chorus projected excellent tone and character as did the children, though blocking appeared stiff, and the nine dancers made little impression. Mercè Paolma designed suitably bland but menacing uniforms for the soldiers, but her go-go-era outfits for Mercedes and Fransquito jarred. Micaëla’s sequined bell bottoms suggested something much pushier than a quiet country girl. Carmen’s rags evoked no particular period, although the black lace thong she dropped shocked only because no ’80s Carmen would have so encumbered herself in the first place in a warm climate. Paloma dressed the chorus in generic motley. Providing the players with a warm aura Gary Marder’s lighting scheme made something almost interesting of silhouettes on the backdrop. His woodsy projections for the gypsy rumble evoked an image perhaps too pastoral, but at least something finally registered.

At the beginning of the fourth act, when a pumped beefcake contingent knocked over a monumental cutout of a bull and tore it to pieces, we had witnessed the evening’s single coup de théâtre with one of only four tangible objects (cars counting as one) in Alfons Flores’s almost nonexistent set.

The principal SF singers all acquitted themselves at least honorably, though the vocally winsome and dusky Carmen, Irene Roberts, shirked her castanet duties and danced unmemorably. Brian Jagde’s Don José alone gave us goosebumps, holding nothing back emotionally as he gave stentorian notice that the force was with his instrument. Too bad he was required to close the show by dragging a supine Carmen offstage, caveman-style, rather than honorably surrendering to the guards.

When this BLO-SF Opera co-production runs in our town from Sept. 23rd to October 9th, Bostonians expecting sunny scenic climes and gorgeous chorus girls rolling cigars on their thighs may be distressed by Calixto Bieito’s black box theater of cruelty. Furthermore, as an unfortunate foil to our opulent Keith Memorial Theater/Opera House, the dominant staging element consists of a mostly blank projection screen (and BLO would be well-advised to make more of this feature). Visual interest beyond the rococo decor of the house will emanate almost solely from brightly costumed singers and dancers. Since SF Opera generously filled the broad War Memorial stage with a cast of 100, BLO is advised not to stint in that department. I can’t imagine, though, that in the tight, though expanded, pit of a former movie theater they will be able to equal SFO’s 62 players, or the quality of their sound.

Last words from Bieito: “My Carmen is not picturesque, nor folkloric, nor a collection of engravings of a stereotypical old Spain. She is intuitive, earthy, passionate, melancholy, sensitive—a young person who desires to drink up life—who is living in a dangerous and violent society.”

If you say so. But from our take, Bieito’s macho directorial shtick could have comported perfectly well with more atmospheric scenic richness.

The phone booth, the flagpole and the projection screen (Photoshopped by BMInt) constituted the set. A wind machine was about to animate the flag.
The phone booth, the flagpole and the projection screen (Photoshopped by BMInt) constituted the set. A wind machine was about to animate the flag. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

An Addendum:

BLO CARMEN – Casting Call

-8 Male Soldiers: Highly Active Non-Speaking Role-

Role: Wild, Rowdy Soldier
Stage Age: 18 – 40
Ethnicity: Any

Production: CARMEN – BLO premiere of Calixto Bieito’s provocative and sexy staging of Bizet’s masterpiece

Contract type: AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) contract, paying $615 per week (4 weeks/4 performances). AGMA has an open membership, therefore we welcome all candidates. You will have to become a member if you accept contract unless it is your first contract with AGMA.

Role Description: We are looking for eight (8) actors to portray a band of rugged and wild soldiers. Non-speaking, non-singing, but stage/acting experience highly preferred. Candidates should be athletic or toned, masculine, brawny, and rugged. We also encourage candidates with only some of these qualities to audition since they may possess other qualifications. The soldiers are highly active throughout the performance, and will appear with the soldier chorus, townspeople, principal singers and more. Should expect to appear shirtless on stage, and may be asked to audition shirtless. Some moderately heavy prop lifting required; must be able to lift and carry 50 pounds.

Dates: Rehearsals from September 5 with performances on September 23, 25m, 30, October 2m, 2016.

Auditions:  Tuesday, June 14, approximately 6pm – 10pm in Boston, MA. To be considered for an audition, please submit a resume and photograph to Please title your email with both your name and “Carmen Soldier.”

Audition Notification:  Candidates selected for an audition will be notified via email on June 8.

Contact Person:
Zachary Calhoun


7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Great review! We saw this last year in Oslo, and the setting was even a main feature of the backstage tour there – although the tour guides well fully clothed throughout. :) Here is a glimpse of the staging from Oslo (more on YouTube).

    Comment by Laura Prichard — June 6, 2016 at 9:05 am

  2. I was in Spain several times during the 90s and huge cut-out bulls identical to the one that has been included in Bieto’s production could be seen all over the countryside, an advertisement for something or other that I now cannot remember. They were black and had no text or any other image on them, just as in the picture above.

    Comment by William Fregosi — June 8, 2016 at 8:13 am

  3. Burnish those six-pack abs…BLO is looking for for eight (8) brawny actors to portray a band of rugged and wild soldiers.

    Review is updated with the full particulars.

    Link here:

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 8, 2016 at 11:32 am

  4. Ugg! Is this what has been elsewhere derisively dubbed Eurotrash?? BLO did a great Carmen a few years back that focused on Don Jose’s obsession with Carmen, almost making her the victim instead of the usual(?) take that Don Jose is the victim of her. A review in the Phoenix made me go at the last moment and I was glad I went. But the jury will be out on this new version until it happens; remember, the point to Eurotrash is to be shocking beyond the point of the story, hence the shout “Read the libretto!” shout heard at the Met during a Tosca a few years ago when I believe Tosca was rolling across the floor embracing a crucifix. Almost a musical Saul Alinsky attack; this sort of think might get annoying enough that people might stop attending and watch TV instead. And knock off the nudity–that’s what the Combat Zone, the Naked I, and the Golden Banana are for.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — June 8, 2016 at 11:00 pm

  5. Mr. Fregosi is referring to Spain’s billboards for Osborne Sherry — omnipresent ominous, iconic. Also clever product placement for the people’s opera. Mr, Eiseman imaginatively anticipates Carmen on the Common.

    Comment by Fred Bouchard — June 15, 2016 at 8:54 am

  6. The 20-foot-tall black bull silhouette in the shape of a fighting bull is a production of the iconic billboard that populates the Spanish countryside, as started out as an ad for Soberano (Sovereign) brandy – now they support a sense of nationalism in parts of Spain.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — June 18, 2016 at 10:08 am

  7. This production runs in SF until early July and will be simulcast live in a the main ballpark in SF on July 2 @ 7:30pm PST, if anyone is in town:

    The 1980s-era Mercedes Benz W123 cars sedans are ubiquitous in the autonomous Spanish city of Ceuta, the ancient Mediterranean outpost located on the north coast of Africa: they’re used as “grand taxis” and it’s interesting to have them on stage, both as a status symbol and as a way to smuggle contraband/place to sleep. They help bring out the gritty naturalism typical of the original Mérimée novella that Bizet & friends adapted for the stage.

    The production does not add back in much of the violence Bizet cut from the original Mérimée story: no cigarette girls slashing each other’s faces, no Carmen stealing the narrator’s watch after changing her mind about cutting his throat, no one-eyed ex-con boyfriend of Carmen… aside from some surprising costuming, it’s a Carmen as you expect it to be (with most of the repeats in the score not taken and some dialogue trimmed). The director describes this production (which has been seen in some form in major European opera houses fifteen times since its 1999 premiere in Catalonia & Maastricht) as “a Carmen that can cross borders.”

    Director Bieito’s La Forza will be featured by the Met next season, if you really want an eyeful.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — June 18, 2016 at 10:29 am

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