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SF Opera’s Carmen asks ‘Do you wanna ride in my Mercedes, boy?’

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Irene Roberts opened San Francisco Opera’s summer season with a strong performance as the title character in Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Courtesy Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

In Bizet’s “Carmen,” the title character goes through lovers like a spoiled rich girl goes through Mercedes-Benzes. San Francisco Opera’s U.S. premiere over the weekend of Calixto Bieito’s steamily provocative production illustrates that insatiable demand with plenty of beefcake and sex, and throws in several Mercedes sedans for good measure.

Transported from 1820s Seville to the post-Franco era in the Spanish coastal enclave of Ceuta in North Africa, the Joan Anton Rechi-directed co-production with Boston Lyric Opera makes it clear that it’s still a man’s world, particularly in effective symbolic, testosterone-laden scenes such as the rousing prelude to Act 4 when a brawny team, as if like matadors, take down a huge billboard representation of a bull.

In such a male-dominated environment, a Gypsy girl (mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, in Friday’s opening performance, featuring the first of two casts) who works at a cigarette factory needs to do whatever she can to survive, including fighting other women, moonlighting with a band of contraband smugglers in their fleet of Mercedes, and stepping over the men who throw themselves at her feet.

Roberts has sex appeal in a lithe, feline way; her voice was smooth and clear Friday in the famous Act l “Habanera,” in which she explains that love is a rebellious bird that cannot be tamed — even when that bird is tied to a flagpole, as she is in the equally renowned “Seguidilla.” Roberts’ nuanced portrayal revealed a temptress capable of being in love, but with a weakness for bling, flashy cars and the men who provide them — but also a vulnerable woman afraid for her life.

Tenor Brian Jagde fired off the right notes as the conflicted Don José who falls for Carmen, and he dispatched his Act 2 “Flower Song” with passion and a pleasant ring. His handsome, boy-next-door corporal makes for a sympathetic take on the man driven to desperation over his crazy love.

In key supporting roles, soprano Ellie Dehn was on the small-voiced side early but opened up later as Don José’s fianceé Micaëla, while baritone Zachary Nelson in his SFO debut unfurled a muscular account of Carmen’s fateful fling Escamillo.

Baritone Edward Nelson and bass-baritone Brad Walker in his SFO debut sang with clarity and supplied attractive machismo as officers Morales and Zuniga, respectively, while soprano Amina Edris in her SFO debut and mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier were appealing and entertaining as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès.

On Saturday, a Carmen of a different feather strutted about. Ginger Costa-Jackson was like an uncontrollable alley cat, and had a sultry, though vibrato-heavy, voice. As Don José, Adam Diegel sounded strained at times, and lacked Jagde’s dramatic punch. Michael Sumuel was a dusky-voiced Escamillo. Erika Grimaldi, in her SFO debut, was the evening’s standout, a compelling Micaëla with a warm, glowing voice.

Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus did an excellent job brightening the festivities, while conductor Carlo Montanaro, also in his SFO debut, opened with a rather rushed prelude before settling into a sensible pulse.

REVIEW
Carmen
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. May 31, June 1, June 17, June 23, June 30 and July 2; 2 p.m. June 26 and July 3
Tickets: $26 to $395
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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