Calixto Bieito’s 1999 production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen isn't without controversy. In the San Francisco Opera performance, Bieito and director Joan Anton Rechi gave us raw sexuality unvarnished by any degree of social refinement. Bieito sets it in the port city of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the coast of North Africa where the population consists mainly of soldiers and smugglers.

Mercé Paloma’s costumes denoted the time as the post-Franco era with flowered short dresses for Carmen and Frasquita. Mercédès wore shorts. Set Designer Alfons Flores’ structures were simple and striking: a huge flag pole for Act I, and an enormous bull for Act III. He also used six vintage Mercedes Benz cars, common in Ceuta, as the gypsies’ mode of transportation.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra played the Prelude with the curtain up and Yusef Lambert, as Innkeeper Lillas Pastia, meandered downstage drinking liquor from a large bottle, laughing when he had his fill. When Act I opened, we saw baritone Edward Nelson as Corporal Moralès commanding lines of soldiers with a stripped-down prisoner running laps around them. The only female in the area, Micaëla had good reason to fear for her safety. Later, we watched an instance of brutality as some soldiers hoisted a woman up the flagpole.

Ellie Dehn sang Micaëla with glorious bell-like tones that belied her fear, nevertheless, and at one point she grabbed a whip and held Moralès at bay. However, the instant Irene Roberts appeared as the sultry-voiced sexually driven Carmen, Micaëla’s moment vanished. Any thoughts of Don José settling down with his mother’s choice for his wife blew away with the smoke from Carmen’s cigarette.

Roberts, who began her Habanera in a phone booth, performed the Seguidilla tied to the flagpole. She sang with a honeyed sound that easily cut through conductor Carlo Montanaro’s sizeable orchestral accompaniment. Roberts, Amina Edris (Frasquita) and Renée Rapier (Mercédès) sang and danced a most energetic Gypsy Song at Pastia’s Inn. Edris’ silver-toned high notes were among the highlights of the evening.

Zachary Nelson was a bold and charismatic toreador who enchanted the ladies with his song and Brian Jagde sang a perfect rendition of José’s difficult Flower Song; even his pianissimo final high note was smooth as silk. Onlookers were not sorry to see his nemesis, Zuniga, sung by stentorian bass-baritone Brad Walker, dragged off by the Gypsies. 

After a short intermission Montanaro led the orchestra in a lyrical performance of the entr'acte. Frasquita and Mercédès sang that their cards spoke of love and the possibilities of attaining wealth through marriage. Carmen saw only death in her fortune; Roberts sang her Card Song with smoky-toned pathos. A fatalist, Carmen believed she had no chance of escaping death. Micaëla, on the other hand, stood up to Carmen, singing her well-loved aria and even got a moment of triumph before running away.

Bieito’s Carmen ends well for the forces of good. Carmen dies and José awaits execution while Micaëla can go on looking for true love. Bieito gave us gritty realism on the stage and a great deal to contemplate as we ventured out onto the California freeways.