Opera Australia: Carmen

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Published: 22nd May, 2017

As a whole Georges Bizet’s Carmen is a score of such contrasts, and at the same time a piece so full of familiar melodies, dances, musical textures – we walk into a performance of such a familiar work with almost impossible expectations. In this production, those loved numbers all truly shine in their turn, which is of course, a remarkable achievement. Yet beyond all of the well-known melodies and dances, the work is a complex and richly woven piece – musical effects heightening drama here, quoting Spanish folk motifs there – and this is why the piece has such enormous impact in the live theatre situation.

The overture was taken at the fastest tempo I have ever heard – the effect was almost a circus overture, or insanely hurried marching, but it actually set up the drama in an interesting way; we felt quite breathless as the stage action began, as though we had run to arrive at the town just in time. Subsequent tempi were finely judged for every song, chorus and scene, so I have no doubt that the effect at the beginning was intentional.

Carmen’s entry is chilling with its declamation of danger – Rinat Shaham’s voice is full of mezzo-soprano richness – at once beauty and threat. Her tone declares, “Your choice is to leave, or embrace the madness my love will take you to”. I found her singing and acting utterly compelling throughout. Dmytro Popov sang the part of Don José beautifully, capturing the range of expression of this man tortured by obsession. The audience also found Stacey Alleaume’s (as Micaëla) entreaty to Don José to find his faithful heart to be utterly heartbreaking. The applause for her aria seemed not to want to end. Of course, it is a huge cast, both of characters, choruses, dancers – and all were beautifully on top of the action, and perfectly in the service of the whole.

Carmen’s character is open a number of readings – she has been declared a woman who dares to play men at their own game; seduction, entertainment and abandonment, and as a result is punished with death. Director John Bell has taken a different approach here – and his program notes are illuminating in his description of working with his characters’ humanity. Complexities of behavior come a little more to the fore than in other productions, yet the text remains intact, perhaps with new light thrown on it. I found it rejuvenating.

The program notes declare this production to be set in contemporary Havana, but the stage is set as a townscape that could be any southern European eighteenth century city. Then little by little fun items of various periods appear, all of which elicited oohs and aahs from the audience. One performer is styled as a Marilyn Monroe, and delighted the audience with the accuracy of her movement work, as well as her appearance. The smugglers are con men in shiny suits, just like you’ve shooed from your front door. Lillas Pastia’s café in this version is a contemporary street food pop up in a self consciously restored 50’s Kombi van. They still danced on the tables, but I thought immediately of Sydney.

This is surely the most colourful Carmen I have seen. The stage was at times a complete riot of colour. With the exception of those in uniforms, no cloth was repeated on any of the dozens of villagers – I checked carefully! The detail of the staging shows in so many such ways.

There is so much to commend in the aspect of movement in the piece. The audience was utterly charmed by the street urchins; they tumble like puppies, and enliven the stage with some remarkably skilled, yet playful acrobatics. The contrast with the more intense and personal moments was all the more palpable.

There is an element of music theatre about this production too. Though vocally this production is thoroughly operatic, just occasionally a singer will sacrifice the classical line, in order to give a more pronounced declamation of a word or phrase for dramatic or comic effect. The device was not at all overused, and I could hear the audience respond to it each time – this was very finely judged. Credit must also go to the the faultless work of the State Orchestra of Victoria.

The program notes deserve particular commendation, for both range and depth. I particularly enjoyed the remarkable blend of musical depth and dramatic grasp in the notes of Elizabeth Kertesz and Michael Christoforidis.

This Carmen delivers all we could want of this well-known piece, yet still surprises with depth and nuance.

Reviewer Peter Hurley attended the opening night of the 2017 Melbourne season of Opera Australia’s Carmen.