By Georges Bizet
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove St., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
Directed by Lotfi Mansouri

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The San Francisco Opera has given the opera world a new reigning Carmen in Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, making her debut in the role in the SFO's new production of Georges Bizet's Carmen at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Borodina, who first appeared with the company last fall in the title role of Rossini's La Cenerentola, puts her own stamp on Bizet's ill-fated heroine, dominating the production with sheer vocal artistry.

Her singing also was marvelous last year, but her acting was wooden. This year she shows great improvement in that area, making her performance all the more impressive. While she's hardly a siren, her command of the stage and her commanding singing make her a convincing stealer of men's hearts. She's especially impressive dramatically in the tavern scene, when Carmen dances for Don José as her audience of one.

As for her singing, it's sheer beauty. She moves seamlessly between registers and has ringing top notes as well as gorgeous bottom notes. She uses dynamic variations and tasteful ornamentation to shape her songs for maximum emotional effect. One can only hope that SFO General Director Lotfi Mansouri, who directs this production so well, will invite her back for an encore after the War Memorial Opera House reopens next fall.

Her Don José is a heralded young tenor from Argentina, José Cura, making his SFO debut. While Cura has the dashing good looks that go well with leading tenor roles, his singing falls slightly short of heroic. There's no doubt that he has many lovely notes, but sometimes they sound pinched, as they did in his first duet with Micaëla. (The acoustics of the Civic contribute to the problem perhaps.) He needs greater dynamic variation in his arias, and his acting - though certainly acceptable - could reflect more emotional range.

Also making his SFO debut is American baritone Richard Paul Fink as Escamillo. He is a decidedly unheroic toreador who lacks the necessary physical grace that one would expect from a champion bull fighter. He also has a wooly, strained-sounding voice and a tendency to distort his mouth when he sings.

American soprano Mary Mills is an appealing Micaëla with good high notes and the acting ability to show that here is a young woman who is both virtuous and brave.

Carmen's two friends are convincingly portrayed by American soprano Nicolle Foland as Frasquita and American mezzo-soprano Pamela Dillard as Mercédès. Both of them are appealingly sultry, especially in Act 2, set in Lillas Pastia's tavern, where both figure prominently in the Gypsies' dance. Foland is clearly a rising star with soaring high notes as well as the ability to blend well in ensembles. Dillard does well on her own, but her tonal qualities do not blend well.

American baritone David Okerlund as Moralès and American bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Zuniga are satisfactory vocally and dramatically. American baritone John Autry as Le Dancaïre and Australian baritone Stuart Skelton as Le Remendado are weak in their roles. They have rhythmic problems in the smugglers' quintet, ruining its unity.

SFO Music Director Donald Runnicles conducts compellingly from his post with the SFO Orchestra above and in back of the stage. Because he and the singers have their backs to each other, they have to rely on television monitors on the apron of the stage and throughout the house. This positioning sometimes results in lack of unity between the orchestra and singers.

Mansouri uses the space and directs his performers well, making sure that as they move about the stage, they still project their voices toward the audience. The season-opening Prince Igor had some problems in that respect, for sometimes the singers faced away from the audience and became difficult to hear in that vast space.

Credit Mansouri also for the rousing tavern scene, aided by Victoria Morgan's choreography. He also adds a nice touch in the final scene: the chorus enters slow-motion in subdued lighting during the orchestral prologue, then switches to normal movement in bright light when the singing begins. Credit for the effective lighting goes to Michael Whitfield. The generally appropriate costumes (Escamillo's outfits are a bit gaudy) were designed by Thierry Bosquet with coordination by Walter Mahoney.

Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus makes its usual fine contributions. The women are especially noteworthy as the cigarette girls in Act 1.

Overall, this is a fine production, one made memorable by Borodina. It's unfortunate that it's not in the Opera House, but audiences can look forward to going back there next year and - one hopes - seeing Borodina in Carmen there before too long after that.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:23 PST