By Georges Bizet
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Patrick Summers
Directed by Sandra Bernhard

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Patrick Summers does double duty for the San Francisco Opera's summer Femmes Fatales Festival by conducting both Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, for which he had originally been engaged, and Bizet's Carmen. He assumed the latter assignment at the last moment when a previously scheduled colleague dropped out due to "indisposition."

Despite the short notice and the rigors of conducting two nights in a row, Summers brought an urgent vitality to the opening performance of Carmen. The SFO Orchestra responded in kind to this rising young conductor, who was recently named music advisor and music director designate of the Houston Grand Opera. The singing, though not consistent throughout the cast, was generally good to excellent.

Taking the spotlight as Carmen was American soprano Denyce Graves, reprising the SFO role she sang to acclaim in 1991. That time, however, she was hampered by a cast after breaking her foot in rehearsal. She didn't let it interfere with the quality of her singing, though. This year she has no cast to hinder her movement, and she has had much more experience with the role. Her Carmen is unabashedly sexy, self-willed and fatalistic. Her singing matches her character in focus and emotional intensity. In short, she's a marvelous Carmen.

Her Don José, Italian tenor Walter Fraccaro, sings well enough, but his acting is stiff, and his facial expressions rarely change. Slovakian soprano Andrea Dankova is an adequate Micaëla, and American bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells is suitably swaggering as Escamillo. Soprano Nicolle Foland as Frasquita, paired with mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips as Mercédès, shows more of her potential star power with her soaring high notes and sure stage presence. Bass John Relyea is a strong Zuniga.

Michael Yeargan's skeletal red set, so powerful when SFO was in the Civic Auditorium for the 1996-97 season, overwhelms the War Memorial Opera House stage and limits the playing area for the crowd scenes. Lighting by Thomas J. Munn and costumes by Thierry Bosquet serve the production well. Sandra Bernhard's stage direction, based on SFO general director Lotfi Mansouri's, is adequate.

Because the originally scheduled Carmen, Olga Borodina, was forced to withdraw from the production following childbirth, SFO brought in three substitutes. Therefore, Graves shares the role with Elena Zaremba and Irina Mishura. Other cast changes are slated for July 2, when Foland will become Micaëla, Carl Tanner Don José, Tammy Jenkins Frasquita and Mark S. Doss Escamillo.

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

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:45 PST