J'nai Bridges Shines as 'Carmen' at San Francisco Opera

J'nai Bridges as Carmen in San Francisco Opera's production of 'Carmen.' (Cory Weaver)

It's been said before, but Carmen is the perfect opera for beginners: it's less than three hours long, it contains familiar music, and the timeless story is adaptable to nearly any moment in history. The battle of the sexes never did run smooth, and in San Francisco Opera's production of Bizet's masterpiece—which at press time has two more performances—that's an understatement.

In this current interpretation produced by Francesca Zambello, Carmen becomes an indictment of toxic masculinity: Matthew Polenzani's depiction of Don José is appropriately insecure and malleable, until being spurned by Carmen turns him vengeful and violent. (An essay in the program by Zambello about rethinking Carmen post-#MeToo adds layers to this angle.) If the show had a subtitle, it could easily be "The Stupid Things Men Do When They Are Refused."

Anita Hartig as Micaëla, Matthew Polenzani as Don José and J'nai Bridges as Carmen in San Francisco Opera's production of 'Carmen.'
Anita Hartig as Micaëla, Matthew Polenzani as Don José and J'nai Bridges as Carmen in San Francisco Opera's production of 'Carmen.' (Cory Weaver)

And then there's Carmen herself, played excellently by rising star J'nai Bridges. As a former basketball player, Bridges brings an athleticism to the role that enhances Carmen's seductive nature: writhing on the floor, straddling and spanking a guard, strategically guiding her legs near men's faces to get what she wants. From the first notes of her "Habanera" to her tragic battle with Don José, Bridges is mesmerizing. (She has said that she channels her inner Beyoncé for the role, and it shows.) At times Bridges is so perfect as the strong-willed woman, refusing to be owned by any man, that it's hard to believe she would even be interested in the too-dumb, too-easy-a-mark of Polenzani's Don José, let alone fall in love with him. But what would Carmen be without capriciousness?

Though the set is simple, there's plenty of action: actors rappel down walls, tavern-goers dance on tables with tambourines, a chorus of two dozen children enhance multiple scenes, and a live horse (a rescue from last year's Camp Fire) carries the toreador Escamillo (marvelously played by Kyle Ketelsen). A card-reading scene with Frasquita (Natalie Image) and Mercédès (Ashley Dixon) is wholly entertaining. And despite more famous songs in the opera, it's Anita Hartig who stops the show as Micaëla with her delicate, beautiful version of the Act III aria, "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante."

Kyle Ketelsen as Escamillo and J'nai Bridges as Carmen in San Francisco Opera's production of 'Carmen.'
Kyle Ketelsen as Escamillo and J'nai Bridges as Carmen in San Francisco Opera's production of 'Carmen.' (Cory Weaver)

There's no doubt that Carmen will return to the Opera House stage; it's been performed in 33 previous seasons at San Francisco Opera. But this production is well worth seeing while one can.

'Carmen' plays for two more shows on Wednesday, June 26 and Saturday, June 29 at the War Memorial Opera House. Details here.

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