Thursday, March 28, 2013


Rinat Shaham as Carmen 
Conducted by Brian Castles-Onion.

Directed by Gale Edwards
Choreography by Kelly Abbey.

Set Design by Brian Thomson
Handa Opera On Sydney Harbour.

Opera Australia until 12th April.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Bizet’s “Carmen”, the opera about a sultry gypsy girl who seduces a soldier only to dump him for a glamorous toreador, is reputed to be the world’s most popular opera. Is there anyone who can’t hum at least one melody from “Carmen” (“The Habanera”, “The Toreador Song”, “The Seguidilla”)?  It’s the opera that has been given countless productions around the world since it was premiered in 1875, and the opera chosen by Opera Australia to follow its inaugural Handa Opera On Sydney Harbour, “La Traviata”. And what a great choice it has turned out to be.

Director, Gale Edward’s concept places this “Carmen” in the Spain in the 1960’s, during the reign of Franco when the effects of the Spanish Civil War were still evident. Tanks, trucks and shipping containers litter the streets, while the rich parade in the latest Dior fashions. Within this context Edwards has come up with a brilliantly staged and performed production, notable, not only for its glorious singing and eye-popping spectacle, but equally for the compelling clarity with which Gale Edwards has been able to keep the focus firmly on the characters and on the telling of the story. 

Because of the need to perform on consecutive nights, there are two casts of principals. The performance reviewed, which was the first dress rehearsal, featured Rinat Shaham as Carmen, Dmytro Popov as Don Jose, Nicole Car as Micaela and Andrew Jones as Escamillo, the Toreador. The second cast, not seen by this reviewer, but which looks equally promising on paper, consists of Milijana Nikolic as Carmen, Adam Diegel as Don Jose, James Clayton as Escamillo and Sharon Prero as Micaela.
Rinat Shaham as Carmen, Dmytro Popov (right) as Don Jose

 Israeli soprano, Rinat Shaham, has played the role of Carmen in 37 different productions of “Carmen” around the world since her Glyndebourne Festival debut in the role in 2004, including Opera Australia's last Sydney Opera House production.  She’s a magnificent Carmen who doesn’t just sing the role, she positively inhabits it. Sexy, sensuous, dangerous, she sounds and looks stunning, whether she’s  prowling  the stage, dancing up a storm, or exercising her formidable talent for seduction over her hapless Don Jose.  Shaham’s performance is electric and unforgettable, the  brilliant centre-piece of this spectacular production.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen with the soldiers
(Note Canberra singer Damien Hall -soldier with beard - left)

Her Don Jose is the good-looking Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov, who’s also an excellent actor as well as a superb singer and their scenes together sizzle. Especially memorable is his gloriously sung “Flower Song” and the magnificently staged death scene at the finale.

Andrew Jones is terrific as the swashbuckling Escamillo, arriving to sing “The Toreador Song” in a neat little Italian sports car surrounded by an entourage of glamorous admirers.  His scene in which he humiliates Don Jose in front of Carmen is especially well handled.
Escamillo (Andrew Jones) and Carmen (Rinat Shaham) 

Nicole Car, who was outstanding earlier this year as Mimi in Gale Edwards’ production of “La Boheme”, is again very impressive as Don Jose’ childhood sweetheart, Micaela.  She’s also incredibly brave, at one stage singing while kneeling on top of a swaying shipping container suspended high in the air. It looked so precarious as to be almost unbearable to watch.
Indeed, Brian Thompsons set is also remarkable in the way it accommodates equally well, the spectacle and the more intimate sections, and how it allows the action to flow seamlessly from scene to scene.  The massive circular stage is dominated by six huge letters which spell out the word “Carmen”.  The audience is looking at the back of these letters, but during the course of the opera, ladders and scaffolding are revealed which allow cast members to clamber up and over the letters and also over a truck and a tank which are flown in by cranes. There are fireworks, and at one stage Escamillo is also flown in on a crane high above the cast and audience to join in the celebrations for the bull-fight.

Choreographer, Kelly Abbey, taking full advantage of Julie Lynch's ravishing costumes, and the large team of excellent dancers, has utilised every opportunity to create brilliant movement and spectacle, even incorporating the overture and entr’actes, for additional dance sequences, which are superbly executed by the dancers, acrobats, and in some cases, the huge chorus. Such touches as her choreographed fans for the cigarette factory girls, and the dazzling specialty dance for Kate Wormald and seven male dancers, are inspired.
Carmen chorus

Equally crucial is  the remarkable lighting design of John Raiment  which constantly floods the stage in brilliant colour, yet manages to keep the audience focussed on the principals during even the most frenetic crowd scenes. Carmen is always spotlit, which allows the audience to watch her reaction to Escamillo’s “Toreador Song”, and to Frasquita and Mercedes revellations sung from the top of a shipping container, as Carmen wanders among the camp fires,  and to watch Don Jose’s reaction to Carmen’s horror as she realises her fate during the card song.
Underpinning all of this magnificent singing, dancing and spectacle is Georges Bizet’s stunning score,  given a glorious performance by the  Australian Opera and Ballet orchestra, conducted , with obvious affection, by Brian Castles- Onion, who takes every opportunity to highlight all the inherent drama, passion and sweetness of this ravishing score. Special mention also for sound designer Tony David Cray who has done a  remarkable job on the sound reproduction, allowing every glorious note to be heard with utmost clarity.
If I sound as if I’m raving about this production..then I am. It is quite simply quite the most exciting production of “Carmen” I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few over the years. Try not to miss it.

Carmen Fireworks
                                                   Photos by Pat Stephens

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