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Review

'Tacky, tawdry and tasteless'? A provocative opera director's take on 'Carmen' is nothing of the sort

Calixto Bieito is Catalan for Eurotrash.

Not really.  But Bieito is the provocative opera director who first comes to the mind of many worried about an art form sinking into Tarantino-esque sex, violence and overall nihilism.

While his productions are seen in many of Europe’s major opera houses, the Spanish director seems to get particularly under the skin of the British, who even have a term for it: Bieito-baiting. Of course, Bieito did once, for English National Opera, set the opening of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” in the stalls of a grubby men’s room, the chorus singing while sitting on toilets.

As for Bieito’s “Carmen,” the Daily Mail summed up the production as “tacky, tawdry and tasteless,” qualities a British tabloid should be expected to know of whence it speaks. Such talk has been more than enough to inspire fear in the hearts of wary American opera companies.

But thanks to San Francisco Opera, Bieito’s “Carmen,” which originated in Catalonia in 1999, is finally his first opera production to come to our shores. It opened Friday night at War Memorial Opera House here and runs, with two casts, through July 3.

It is neither tacky nor tasteless, and if tawdry, that’s an essential part of its disturbing realism. Yes, there is brief nudity, but it is so dimly lighted that you can barely tell. Meanwhile, the intimations of sex would be considered restrained on cable TV; the violence tame by network TV standards.

The company does offer the standard caution for viewer discretion. Nonetheless, the July 2 performance will be simulcast live and for free to San Francisco’s AT&T Park for an audience of 30,000.

I saw the second performance of “Carmen” on Saturday night. It featured Ginger Costa-Jackson, an exceptional young Sicilian American mezzo-soprano, who brought a dangerous, animalistic vibrancy to the title role. No one else in the cast was up to her level vocally or theatrically. But this was still an evening of powerful, illuminating theater.

What is perhaps most surprising about this production of an opera that has already been treated to every gimmick imaginable is how little the sex or violence means. They are for Bieito the natural survival instincts Carmen symbolizes. A worker in a cigarette factory, a member of an oppressed class, she is a revolutionary who fights back against society and conformity. But Bieito’s inspiration is to show her dominated not by lust, which she can control, but by forces greater that she tragically can’t control.

The stage is often bare. A post-Franco military dominates a chaotic public square. Gypsies cavort in old Mercedes, a visual pun on the name of one of them. A naked toreador enacts the ritualistic ceremony of bull fighters exposing themselves to the bulls the night before the fight to take possession of the animals’ spirits.

The revelation is that by evoking this ceremonial, near mystic, aspect of Spanish life, Bieito also creates a setting that heightens a culture in which nerves are always on edge and inhibitions inevitably reduced. Dance plays a big part. The director has a special feel for choreographing crowds, and they move in ways that an ocean flows, even as they are made up of wildly characterful individuals.

Costa-Jackson embraces all this with conspicuous complexity. There is a lusty yet somber quality to her strikingly dark mezzo, the ideal voice for Carmen. Carmen’s arias are dances, and Costa-Jackson, always in control of the moment, makes them sexually insinuating. But she also uses that control to mask her deeper defenselessness. As a threat to the status quo, she knows she will be eliminated not as an unfaithful lover but as a lover.

At Saturday’s performance, the contrast between Carmen and the world around her came across as slightly too obvious, given a bland Don Jose (Adam Diegel), a conventionally operatic Micaela (Erika Grimaldi) and an Escamillo (Michael Sumuel) of little toreador charisma. Carlo Montanaro’s conducting was fluid but lacked dramatic point. But there was plenty of life in the others, and in the crowd, in the details of the staging.

Nor is San Francisco’s “Carmen” exactly Bieito’s American operatic debut. The staging was undertaken by a revival director, Joan Anton Rechi. 

But the company has broken ice that needs breaking. There can now be no going back. The Metropolitan Opera is on board to bring Bieito to New York in 2017 to direct Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino.” Meanwhile, Bieito is inescapable in Europe. His upcoming production of Halvy’s “La Juive” at Bavarian State Opera will inevitably invite controversy, and the company will bravely stream the opening performance, June 26, live on its website.

mark.swed@latimes.com

@markswed

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