Opera, Reviews, Stage

Carmen review (Sydney Opera House)

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John Bell’s 2013 production of Tosca set the gold standard for dramatic integrity at Opera Australia: tense, psychologically consistent and finely wrought. So expectations were high for his follow-up, a new take on Bizet’s scorching Spanish masterpiece Carmen.

Bell lives up to the standard he set himself, with a cast of fine singers and actors, and a creative team made up of Australia’s finest.

The action has been moved from Spain in 1820 to somewhere ‘resembling’ the Cuba of today (in Bell’s program notes, he says ‘resembling’ because it allows him to be a little more inventive and not be too specific: “we’re making an opera, not a travel documentary.”)

It certainly gives costume designer Teresa Negroponte a broad spectrum of colours and silhouettes to work with (and her work is absolutely stunning — vivacious, colourful and character-driven) and allows the audience to better understand the gap between the the military which Don Jose abandons and the world of gangsters and thieves he joins. Set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell has created a surprisingly versatile village square space, which changes mood with Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design.

And the new setting allows choreographer Kelley Abbey to combine the sensuality of Cuban dance hall salsas with some contemporary hip-hop moves, performed by a small ensemble of adult and young boy dancers. Her work with Bell on the big crowd scenes is an absolute highlight — the second act opener is a song and dance showstopper worthy of any Broadway musical. (Although do we really need a “selfie” moment in every contemporary production of a classic?) Both Bell and Abbey know how to use the space to highlight the essential action; it’s a vibrant and busy stage, but the audience’s eye is always drawn exactly where it should be, thanks in part to some smart and subtle lighting.

Clementine Margaine is the perfect Carmen in this production: she oozes intelligence and is constantly sizing up the other characters and situations on stage. It’s also a gorgeous vocal performance: earthy and warm without the overt lustiness of many Carmens. Her Habanera is effortlessly seductive and her interaction with Don Jose during the aria helps to lay a more solid and intriguing groundwork for this relationship long before most productions do so.

Opera Australia audiences have now seen Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee as Cavardossi in Tosca and Calaf in Turandot, and he continues to thrill as Don Jose, with his brilliantly focused tenor with its almost metallic edge. He also traces the character’s transformation with clarity.

Michael Honeyman is a fine Escamillo, even if he doesn’t entirely set the stage alight, while Adrian Tamburini is excellent as the sleazy lieutenant Zuniga. Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano are brilliantly fun as Carmen’s gypsy friends Frasquita and Mercedes, and their reactions help to define the implosive relationship between Don Jose and Carmen.

There’s also excellent work from Natalie Aroyan as Micaela, the good country girl. Her third act aria is gorgeously acted and sung, even if she did seem a little underpowered in her upper register on opening night.

Andrea Molino draws a dynamic performance from the orchestra without ever pushing the tempi too far, while the OA chorus tackle all of the dramatic and vocal challenges with great skill and enthusiasm.

After all the pizzazz of Bell’s production, the final confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose comes as a bit of an abrupt shock. Bell has directed the finale with a tragic sense of inevitability: Carmen knows this man will kill her, and so do we. Not just because it was foretold by the cards, but because Carmen (and the audience) exists in a world in which there are men who believe they own a woman and will destroy her if she won’t submit.

Carmen has seen this happen before, and we’ve seen this happen before, and it still lands an emotional wallop.

When this scene is staged with such authenticity, it’s impossible to not think of the Australian women being killed by their partners. As a society, we need to do more to tackle the attitudes and systems which allow women to die at the hands of men. But all we can do at the opera is witness Carmen’s final defiance and refusal to bend.

This is a Carmen not to be missed.

[box]Carmen is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 12. Featured image by Keith Saunders[/box]

One response to “Carmen review (Sydney Opera House)

  1. I am sorry, I do not concur. This Carmen is totally devoid of the Spanish flavour expected – Bizet would have written this opera with the expectation of conveying the sensuality and warmth of a true Spanish ambience.

    I do agree with the positive remarks on the voices of Don Jose and Micaela.

    You also praise the setting, the same boring corner on every stage. Are you kidding us..?

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