San Francisco Opera opted to open its summer season Wednesday night with Bizet’s warhorse “Carmen,” but the company didn’t roll out Mercedes-Benzes as it did the last time it staged the opera in 2016; just a strong cast, smart staging, vibrant period costumes and, well, a horse, that together made for a very appealing Francesca Zambello production.
The work, a co-production of SFO and Washington National Opera originally created by Opera Australia and based on the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and Norwegian National Opera co-production, has a drab, adobe-colored high-wall backdrop, but it’s also blessed by principals, especially mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in the lead role, who provided dazzling performances.
Bridges gave a taste of her opulent voice and resoluteness as the Mexican tavern worker Josefa Segovia in “Girls of the Golden West” when she was last seen at SFO in 2017, attributes that served her well in her professional debut as Carmen. Bridges smoldered from the outset with a seductive account of the Act 1 Habanera, was alluring in her Gypsy dance and castanet-bearing courtship of Don Jose, and stood her ground with steely determination to live free.
As Don Jose, the soldier who deserts Napoleon’s army in order to pursue Carmen’s fleeting love, tenor Matthew Polenzani was both ardent and plush-voiced in his role debut, especially in a passionate, honeyed offering of his Act 2 Flower Song. It’s hard to imagine that the way Polenzani radiantly woos Carmen won’t reclaim her heart after her affections have moved on to another man, but, alas, his fervor will be for naught and have deadly consequences.
Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen as the bullfighter Escamillo didn’t need any help projecting his rich, booming voice in the house or to strut his studly stuff around the stage, but a lift from a 13-year-old stallion just prior to an authoritative delivery of his Act 2 signature Toreador aria was a nice production touch. With Ketelsen’s bravura performance in that scene as well as his stirring face-off with rival Don Jose in Act 3, one can see why Carmen would fall for him.
Making her SFO debut, the Romanian soprano Anita Hartig was a sympathetic, sweet-voiced Micaëla, Don Jose’s childhood sweetheart who still has a soft spot for him and has sought him out to tell him his mother wants him to return home. Hartig tenderly conveyed her abiding affection for Don Jose in her lovely Act 3 aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante.”
Ian Robertson’s chorus was a Spanish feast for the eyes and ears, and, in his SFO debut, conductor James Gaffigan led the orchestra through a sensibly piquant serving of Bizet’s score.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 11, June 14, June 20, June 26 and June 29; 2 p.m. June 23
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com