Carmen at San Francisco Opera | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazine - July 2016

Renate Stendhal

Scandal-maker Calixto Bieito is bringing his directorial blend of violence, blood and sperm to the American opera stage, starting at San Francisco Opera with a refurbished Carmen from 1999. The Catalan director who has been labeled “the Quentin Tarantino of Opera” has spilled his apocalyptic hell across
Europe, turning every work—be it Mozart, Verdi or Wagner— into a madhouse peopled by sex-crazed sadists and psychopaths. He famously set Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail (Berlin) in a bordello where nudity, torture, fellatio and murder go hand in hand and everybody is gunned down in the end. His Ballo in Maschera (London) starts out with a row of politicians reading the paper on the toilet. His Flying Dutchman (Stuttgart) has refrigerators filled with dead babies and chunks of meat, getting their doors banged shut in the rhythm of the music. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, the Dutchman was so thoroughly defaced “that it was absolutely unrecognizable, leaving no trace of Wagner (except the music).” Torture and rape are quasi banalities on Bieito’s stages, but in Il Trovatore (Hannover) he laid it on a bit: “Bieito went for … gang warfare involving human torches, deviant sex of every conceivable kind, and enough blood to float the proverbial fat lady.” Anything is good for a scandal, for a bit of a breeze in the stuffy old temple, so it seems, and Bieito delivers. Next season, his Trovatore will be delivered to the Met.


The European audiences boo, holler, shout insults in
mid-performance and walk out—or have a great time because “what you don’t understand has to be wildly applauded.” (Der Spiegel) So, welcome in San Francisco to the darling of high-end Eurotrash. “A performance ought to be as intense and exciting as a bullfight,” Bieito once said, and with Bizet’s Carmen—an opera set in his cultural territory—one would have expected a shocker, a big splash of Spanish blood and gore. But no. We only get a rather lame assortment of sadism, gratuitous violence, nudity, and murder—a “tacky, tawdry and tasteless” stew (the London Daily Mail). Fallatio was spotted in a Mercedes coupé at San Francisco Opera, but not everybody was sitting up high enough to enjoy the view.

Bieito’s Carmen (mezzo Irene Roberts) is a hapless little street whore who takes her panties off to straddle Don José in a parking lot, and puts them back on when they are interrupted by another one of her Johns, Lieutenant Jurigo (Brad Walker), who is Don José’s rival. Don Jose (Brian Jagde) has just knocked her to the ground because she hasn’t had a great reaction to his love declaration, his “Flower Song.” Well, she must be used to getting knocked about; she still puts down the blanket for sex with him next to the Mercedes Benz of her smuggler pals.


With such a low start, there isn’t far to go down before Don José knifes her outside the bull ring. If he can’t have her, no man will, especially not the Matador she has an eye on, but who looks and acts more like a shoe salesman (croaky-voiced Zachary Nelson as Escamillo). To Bizet’s final tragic chords, Don José drags Carmen’s corpse behind him like a trophy, like he’s the Matador, the macho winner over the woman.

Carmen as a piece of meat. “Sometimes,” the director muses, “a bit of controversy is a good thing because controversy opens long forgotten doors.” Forgotten? Sexism, the misery of women under male rule? The international opera stage has seen any number of modern and post-modern interpretations of Carmen, and there is nothing new in Bieito’s setting the opera in a Post-Franco era and pushing the story toward sexual license. But his Carmen has nothing going for her. Drab, bedazzled and depressed, in the grey coat of her cigarette factory, she emerges from a phone booth to the soldiers’ hurrah. There is nothing “gypsy” about her. No rose in her unkempt hair. She doesn’t flirt, doesn’t throw glances, doesn’t dance, doesn’t even move her hips—the soldiers do that for her, acting up with lewd gestures and hip gyrations, but for what? Her “Habanera,” the song about gypsy love, l’amour bohème? Californian mezzo Roberts has a very decent voice and sings well, but the gap between the passionate, provocative song and her down-trodden attitude is as wide as the stage. Carmen might just as well not sing at all with all those men going bonkers while she presents a bit of her leg every now and then. This girl called Carmen must be really really cheap.


Don Jose doesn’t fare any better.  He suddenly appears from the throng of soldiers to face his lieutenant and rival, Zuniga. One stud like another, looking at the dissociated Carmen between them, and somehow she comes up with a crumpled red flower that she tosses on the floor in Don José’s direction. That’s all, and now he has to have her? This guy is not the man Bizet portrayed in the story based on Prosper Mérimée’s novella. Bizet’s Don José is a reluctant, rather shy and bottled-up guy who has a village sweetheart and shows no interest in Carmen. He’s the only one in the battalion who is indifferent to her seduction and therefore she picks him—that is, in Bizet’s story: “…mais si je t’aime, prends garde à toi!”—”...but if I love you, watch out!”


Don José has no story here; he is a cypher, and the tenor, Brian Jagde, doesn’t manage the vocal and physical charisma to break through the confines of Bieito’s direction. He is just like the other soldier brutes whose “primal virility” (translate: sadistic violence) is what most interested the director, according to the program notes. While the kids’ choir is happily shouting “Ratatata!” a soldier is running around the batallion in his underwear until he falls dead. The soldiers, goaded by their Drill Sergeant Morales (handsome newcomer Edward Nelson) are ready to attack any skirt that comes into view, especially of course Don José’s village girlfriend Micaela (a stand-out Ellie Dehn) who dresses and behaves not like an innocent but more like “one of these insolent bitches” (as the updated supertitles have it).


Bieito claims he only wants to show “how the violence and insanity of people destroy the world, love and poetry.” If that claim had the least plausibility, he would first have to come up with some measure of love and poetry, but that’s just the thing Bieito seems incapable of. He is one of the modern Bilderstürmer (iconoclasts) who can’t tolerate beauty and poetry. If their images make you want to vomit, it’s considered “cathartic.”
I consider it a form of adolescent rage about the pain, ugliness and cruelty of the world, which these directors are driven to share by inflicting the pain, ugliness and cruelty on the audience.  

Only love and poetry could possibly make sense of Don José’s desertion from the army to join Carmen and her smuggler thugs. Without it, without being torn from his path by an overwhelming force, there is no drama, no disgrace, no despair in the steady destruction of a man who turns into an abjectly jealous murderer. Drama, for Bieito, is conveyed by fist punches and banging of car doors. (Remember those refrigerator doors?)  Drama is having Lieutenant Juniga beaten to a pulp by the Mafiosi-like smugglers who simultaneously fornicate on the hoods and roofs of their luxury sedans. The trashy women (Amina Edris and Renée Rapier doing a good job as Carmen’s side-kicks) constantly quarrel, hiss and show their claws, then decorate a kitschy Christmas tree among the cars for a small girl who already knows how to perform an erotic dance. With these clichés, the director and the Revival Director Joan Anton Rechi (a compatriot) proudly proclaim “a high level of reality.“


Perhaps 41-year-old Bieito confuses reality with nihilism. A confusion that is doubly absurd on the opera stage, the most unreal of all performance platforms where everyone won’t stop singing. Wanting to force “reality” onto the opera stage is like trying to bring “realism” to ballet by forcing the ballerinas to do their point work in hiking boots. Opera, ballet and theater precisely transcend the normal realistic range of human expression—a process also called art. Bieito’s post-modern chic really dates back fifty years and more to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and the spirit of Peter Handke’s 1966 play Publikumsbeschimpfung, Offending the Audience, “using the theatre to protest against the theatre”— or, paraphrasing
Handke, using opera to protest against opera.

A steady contingent of European critics finds all this wonderful, making up highfalutin theories about cathartic violence, quite unaware of the pervasive lack of feeling (love and poetry) without which catharsis is about as potent as a glass of dishwater.


Bieito’s “realism” offers superb group choreography and physical as well as vocal performance work by the San Francisco Opera chorus, soldiers and smugglers alike. There are also occasional moments of beauty and even humor. When the smugglers get their women ready for an operation, they pull some gypsy skirts out of their bags. The second act (the original five are reduced to two, with many cuts in the spoken dialogue) shows the iconic bull you see everywhere in Spanish advertisements on a huge billboard that covers the entire back of the stage. It’s a bit of an early rise as we are just arriving at the smugglers’ camp, still one act away from the bull-fighting arena, but the beauty of this backdrop (sets by Alfons Flores) creates a looming, haunting mood. The final act outside the arena then brings the whole billboard down with a crash as in a premonition of “getting real” and taking down of the bull in the arena. The soldiers dismantle the advertisement and perform a mock fight with the last piece, the huge horned forehead of the beast. Of course they again act wildly over-sexed, but we get the message: Soon Carmen will be taken down by one of them. The stage is once again all black when the crowds of spectators rush to the front to see the bullfighters march in for the last act. We don’t see them, we only see the cheering people, which is not a new idea, but it’s well executed and, who would have thought, a long scene devoid of violence.


Such moments, however, don’t help much. The damage Bieito afflicts on the characters and their story is considerable as one couldn’t care less about any one of them. A Carmen who has neither power nor freedom nor pride; who is always in fear, a victim from the moment she steps onstage, suggests a musical feast served in the gutter. But there is no musical feast. A German critic comments about Bieito: “Life is brutal and dirty and your bloody-pretty music won’t change a thing about it. But in order to say this he still needs the music and (… ) the music retreats.” (Der Spiegel). Using opera to protest against opera, music becomes an irrelevant factor in the “reality show.”

Conductor Carlo Montanaro plays the (slightly shortened) score at vivid speed, which helps get to the end of something one barely hears, as the clashes between music and stage are so deafening.

Bizet, of course, expresses and narrates the very opposite of the director’s gutter concept. It celebrates a female free spirit who is a goddess to men, who is utterly unafraid of them and their sex, and who will rather die than cowtow to a man and give up love, poetry and her freedom—“la liberté, la liberté!”

Photos - Cory Weaver

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Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and
writing coach based in San Francisco
and Pt. Reyes, and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Read her Blog
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

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