The musical definition of “grand opera” is a work sung, not spoken. That’s not the case with the original opéra-comique version of Bizet’s “Carmen,” which returned Sunday to San Francisco Opera for the 168th time. (Only “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly” have been presented more in the company’s history.)
While “Carmen” has so much dialogue (kudos to French language coach Patricia Kristof Moy) it remains a very grand — or, at least big — opera.
Nicola Luisotti leads an orchestra of 62. Onstage are 13 principals, 60 singers in Ian Robertson’s San Francisco Chorus, 40 children from the San Francisco girls and boys choruses and 44 supernumeraries.
Still, the opera is popular not because of an “Aida”-like spectacle, but because it has passionate, unforgettably melodic music. It also serves as an excellent introduction to the genre.
On Sunday afternoon, the music was mostly well-balanced and richly detailed; woodwinds, strings and brass excelled, and quiet moments glowed. During Act 1, the children’s chorus and orchestra blended in a charming, vivacious scene. On the other hand, grand gestures the conductor clearly called for didn’t come through from an uneven cast.
Two singers are sharing the title role. The experienced Kendall Gladen sang the opening; debuting Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili also appears.
Gladen, acting up a storm and more cute than the devil her character is supposed to be, filled the War Memorial with a big, warm, supple voice, even if the sound was not sustained at all times.
Still, she was the star, especially against an inconsistent performance by Thiago Arancam as Don José. The tenor has a fine lyrical voice, but had trouble hitting high notes or increasing the volume.
In the tiny role of Morales, Trevor Scheunemann made an excellent impression. In the big role of Escamillo, debuting Paulo Szot did not. There is no better setup for a big aria than the “Toreador Song,” but Szot provided neither the volume nor the presence required.
Adler Fellow Sara Gartland was good as Micaela. Cybele Gouverneur as Mercédes and Susannah Biller as Frasquita sounded fine individually, yet had problems in ensemble numbers; still, their big quartet with Timothy Mix and Daniel Montenegro came through like gangbusters.
Veteran opera fans have treasured memories of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1981 production; this 2002 revised version from Zürich is directed by Jose Maria Condemi. Sadly, the blinding Seville sun against the white walls, the palpable heat of the place and Ponnelle’s wonderful stage direction are gone.
Under Condemi, Zuniga (Wayne Tigges) ends up as a hysterical clown, Carmen and Don Jose assume the missionary position too many times, and large crowds onstage get lost in traffic.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. today, Nov. 17, Nov. 23, Nov. 29 and Dec. 4; 8 p.m. Nov. 12, Nov. 15, Nov. 26 and Dec. 2; 2 p.m. Nov. 20
Tickets: $26 to $330
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com