Monday, March 27, 2017

CARMEN - Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Opera in four acts by Georges Bizet. Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion.
Stage Director: Gale Edwards. Revival Director: Andy Morton.
Set Designer: Brian Thompson. Costume Designer: Julie Lynch.
Lighting Designer: John Rayment. Choreographer: Kelley Abbey.
Sound Designer: Tony David Cray.
Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point until 23rd April 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Despite some unfortunate publicity at the beginning of the week which questioned the integrity of this revival, and unco-operative weather which resulted in this open-air production receiving only one full onstage run-through before the opening night performance, all was “right on the night”, and the first-night audience was rewarded with a  thrilling performance that was a triumph for all concerned. 
“Carmen” is the first of the Handa Operas on Sydney Harbour to be revived, and this meticulously prepared revival does full justice to a remarkable production. 

Conceived as  spectacle on a grand scale, Gale Edwards brilliant concept and staging takes advantage of every opportunity provided by the magical location and Bizet’s thrilling score to inject movement, drama and excitement into the proceedings, without compromising any of the intimacy of the central drama between the headstrong gypsy, Carmen, and her smitten soldier, Don Jose.

Jose Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen
Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don Jose
In this she is blessed with a marvellous Carmen in stunning mezzo soprano, Jose Maria Lo Monaco, whose lustrous voice and exotic  passionate presence, captured the attention of the audience, as well as the handsome Don Jose, (Andeka Gorrotxategi) from the moment she set foot on the stage.  Even in the scenes when these two are alone on Brian Thompson’s vast setting, they manage to remain the centre of attention, thanks in part to the remarkable lighting design by John Rayment, which keeps them firmly in focus, even when the stage is flooded with blues and reds, and a swirling mass of singers and dancers.

Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano shine as Carmen’s friends, Frasquita and Mercedes, as do Nicholas Jones and Christopher Hillier as their smuggler friends, Remendado and Dancairo. Adrian Tamburini again demonstrates his strong dramatic vocal and physical presence as the sinister Zuniga, while Luke Gabbedy was a dashing Escamillo and carried off his spectacular entrance with flair, raising the heat with his full-throated rendition of the famous “Toreador Song”.

Jane Ede as Frasquita, Nicholas Jones as Remendado, Christopher Hillier as Dancairo
Jose Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen, Margtaret Trubiano as Mercedes.

Brian Thompson’s set design is a masterpiece of uncluttered simplicity. A circular stage flanked by ramps on either side, allows easy access for the huge team of singers and dancers who populate the crowd scenes. Towering red letters spelling out, in reverse, the name of the opera, mask three levels of scaffold platforms which the ensemble spectacularly inhabit at various points in the opera. A great red neon-outlined bull signals the excitement of the bull-ring, with further spectacle added by the military tank, and large truck which are flown in suspended on huge cranes.  Micaela, (Natalie Aroyan in superb voice) sings her most poignant aria suspended high in the air on top of a huge metal container.

Equally spectacular are Julie Lynch’s remarkable costumes in a cacophony of colours, ranging through glamorous black, white and yellow La Dolce Vita inspired costumes for the ensemble ladies to swirling black and red gypsy skirts for the female dancers.

The cast of "Carmen" 

Kelley Abbey has created a series of extraordinary dance sequences, which are superbly executed by the large dance team, among them, Amy Campbell, who provides a highlight performing a spectacular number in which her huge red silk skirt is manipulated by six male dancers to stunning effect.

Amy Campbell in "Carmen" 

Absolutely In his element with this opera, Brian Castles-Onion, conducts from beneath the stage, moving Bizet’s melody laden score along at a cracking pace, while Tony David Cray’s miraculous sound design insures that each glorious voice is heard to maximum effect.

Once again the excellent Opera Australia chorus rose to the occasion, and not even a passing shower, just as the cigarette girls emerged to complain about the heat on the factory floor, could dampen the excitement created by this remarkable production which captures perfectly the drama, passion and spectacle inherent in this opera.

Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga
Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don Jose

The full magnitude of their achievement became fully apparent when the vast company of singers, dancers, orchestra and technical crew took to the stage for final bows, allowing the audience to appreciate the number of people necessary to bring this gigantic project to fruition.

In his program note, Dr Haruhisa Handa, chairman of the International Foundation for Arts and Culture, notes that the IFAC have extended the title sponsorship of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, which “will enable Opera Australia to continue to craft its unique brand of operatic spectacle”.  Welcome news as Opera Australia continues to demonstrate their expertise in their staging of this unique world class event.

                                                    Photos by Prudence Upton

   This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.