San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season opens with Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

J’Nai Bridges as Carmen and David Leigh as Zuniga in Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera opens its 2019 Summer Season at the War Memorial Opera House this evening with the work regarded as the most popular opera in the repertoire – Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

Staged by American director Francesca Zambello, this production of Carmen – new to San Francisco Opera – celebrates a number of debut performances. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges makes her professional role debut in the title role, tenor Matthew Polenzani sings Don José for the first time, and soprano Anita Hartig, as Micaëla, makes her debut appearance with San Francisco Opera. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen has appeared with the Company previously, and returns as the bullfighter Escamillo, however conductor James Gaffigan fulfills his first opera engagement with the Company, leading the cast, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

In 1872, Georges Bizet was commissioned by the Paris Opéra-Comique to write a new work. Historically, this institution was known for light, moralistic pieces – those suitable for ‘family theatre’, safe and predictable – and although Bizet received the commission to try to raise the theatre from its somewhat dull reputation, the co-directors had no idea just how revolutionary Bizet’s opera would be. Based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, with a libretto in French by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, Bizet’s Carmen broke new ground, focussing on the underclass – the so-called ‘common folk’, which included gypsies, smugglers and factory workers, women who smoked in public, who were involved in physical fights and who were sexually free. Consequently, when the opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique in March 1875, it was condemned by the critics as immoral and vulgar.

Bizet’s Carmen with the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps, J’Nai Bridges as Carmen (center), Natalie Image as Frasquita (left) and Ashley Dixon as Mercédès
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bizet, who had taken a lot of care to familiarize himself with the music of Andalusia – the region in which Carmen is set – was devastated by this reception, and at the time of his death from a heart condition three months after the premiere, he was certain that he’d written the greatest failure in the history of opera. He didn’t live to see how successful his Carmen would become – nor did he know of the prediction of Tchaikovsky that within 10 years, it would become “the most popular opera in the world”.

A Francesco Zambello production at the War Memorial Opera House is always keenly anticipated. This internationally recognized, multi-award-winning director of opera and theatre is hugely popular. Included in her recent productions for San Francisco Opera are Der Ring des Nibelungen, Aida, Luisa Miller, Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, and the world premieres of Heart of a Soldier and Two Women (La Ciociara). In January of this year, she staged Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas for Houston Grand Opera, in March her production of Bernstein’s West Side Story opened in Sydney, in April Fort Worth Opera presented Porgy and Bess, and Atlanta Opera staged La Traviata, Lyric Opera Chicago presented West Side Story last month, and Show Boat and La Traviata open at the Glimmerglass Festival in July. General Director of The Glimmerglass Festival since 2010, and Artistic Director of The Washingtion National Opera at the Kennedy Center since 2012, Francesca Zambello was Artistic Advisor to San Francisco Opera between 2005 and 2011, and Artistic Director of the Skylight Theater from 1987 to 1992.

Kyle Ketesen as Escamillo with the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

J’Nai Bridges first appeared with San Francisco Opera as Bersi in a 2016 production of Andrea Chenier, and in 2017 she created the role of Josefa Segovia in the world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West. Recent highlights of Ms Bridges’ operatic career include her debut as Preziosilla in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino with Opernhaus Zürich, a debut at Bavarian State Opera as Bersi, she appeared as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten with Los Angeles Opera, and at Vancouver Opera as Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. Her 2016 performance as Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at San Diego Opera drew the following critique from “Vocally gifted with effusive, smoky substance, her softness and soulfulness fit like a glove as the devoted servant. …. Ms Bridges expresses her character with moving delicateness; she will go far.”

David Leigh as Zuniga, Zhengyi Bai as Remendado, Natalie Image as Frasquita, Ashley Dixon as Mercédès (partially obscured) and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

American tenor Matthew Polenzani was last seen at San Francisco Opera in 2013, in the title role of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. His 2018/19 season has included a return to Lyric Opera of Chicago in his signature title role of Mozart’s Idomeneo, an appearance at Teatro Massimo di Palermo as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, a role debut as Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, and the title role of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr Polenzani has also recently appeared with Michael Fabiano and Bryan Hymel, under Riccardo Frizza, at The Dallas Opera Gala. According to Opera News, “Few singers today command the sheer beauty of timbre and dynamic control of Matthew Polenzani …”, noting his “almost impossibly beautiful pianissimo ….”, and the New York Sun refers to his “ringing, clarion lyric tenor that he can push to heroic heights ……”.

Anita Hartig as Micaëla, Matthew Polenzani as Don José and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Romanian soprano Anita Hartig’s rise to international recognition has been swift since her successful series of debut performances as a member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble between 2009 and 2012. Her debut performance in 2012 as Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème for Teatro alla Scala, Milan, led to a CNN documentary on her artistry, and she has since appeared in the same role for The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, the Bayerische Staatsoper and the Opéra de Bastille in Paris. Ms Hartig has also appeared as Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata for Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona, as Liù in Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, and she recently returned to the Vienna State Opera to perform the role of Micaëla, prior to her performance in San Francisco. Later this season, she returns to the Metropolitan Opera to sing Violetta, which she will also perform for the Toulouse Opera, and she will appear for Opéra de Paris as Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

Matthew Polenzani as Don José and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was described by Opera News as having “… a naturally beautiful, superbly trained voice, rich and clear at the low end, smooth and flexible in the middle range and effortless at the top”. This season, Mr Ketelsen has sung the role of Escamillo for the Metropolitan Opera, and also that of Golaud in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. He has appeared as Conte Rodolfo in the Opernhaus Zurich’s production of La Sonambula, and will also appear as the King of Scotland in the premiere of Handel’s Ariodante at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Méphistophélès in Les Siècles’ La Damnation de Faust throughout France. Included in his schedule will be concert appearances with the Madison Symphony.

Other members of the cast include bass David Leigh as Zuniga, making his Company debut, and current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows soprano Natalie Image as Frasquita, and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon as Mercédès. Tenor Christopher Oglesby sings El Dancairo, tenor Zhengyi Bai El Remendado and baritone SeokJong Baek is Moralès.

Although this production of Carmen will be the first time that James Gaffigan has led an opera performance for the Company, he led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Adler Fellows in the concert The Future is Now in 2017. Michelle Merrill conducts the June 20th performance (a debut with the Company), and the Director of the San Francisco Opera Chorus is Ian Robertson.
Sung in French with English supertitles, Carmen runs at the War Memorial Opera House for seven performances, until June 29th. Further information and tickets are available on the San Francisco Opera website, and tickets may also be reserved on (415) 864-3330.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica

and artists’ websites:

Francesca Zambello

J’Nai Bridges

Matthew Polenzani

Anita Hartig

Kyle Ketelsen

ArtsPreview home page

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