Veteran stage director John Bell helms an emotionally taut new production of Carmen, contrasting the savage drama with the gaudy frivolity of everyday life. This premiere season is set apart by an extraordinary pair of lead performances from French soprano Clémentine Margaine and South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee.
In his Director’s Note, thoughtfully included on the back of the cast sheet, Bell outlines his choice of present day Havana: “…a likely corrupt environment for the military and the underworld to rub shoulders with those involved in sporting rackets.” Wheeled luggage and iPhones are among the handful of deliberately jarring elements that connect the audience to this secluded locale, a place where sexist stereotypes are still the accepted norm and superstition abounds.
There is a strong sense of the qualities of music theatre about this production, an aspect that is sure to make the opera even more accessible to audiences of all backgrounds. Like the merry townsfolk of a golden age musical, the chorus comes and goes from set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell’s arid, crumbling village square. Teresa Negroponte dresses the bustling crowds in a vivid array of sunny oranges, purples and greens. Even the military fatigues come in several shades of camouflage chic.
Representing Lillas Pastia’s tavern as a well-populated street-food van for hungry night clubbers makes for a lively second act. In act three, however, the clandestine nature of the smugglers’ den is significantly undermined by the presence of the full chorus still in their vividly coloured clubbing gear. Finally, the chorus changes to appropriately festive daywear as they cheer the parade of toreadors processing to the bullfight.
Presenting the unfolding psychological drama in the midst of such constant merriment ratchets up the tension. Bell charts Don José’s downfall in clear, believable strokes, continuously showing the effect of Carmen’s hypnotic sexuality on all characters. The diagonal downstage steps provide a highly theatrical setting for most of the key scenes, helping the performers to form strong connections between their characters and the audience. In particular, the half dozen supporting characters are established with exceptional clarity.
In a neatly realised touch, Bell, Negroponte and choreographer Kelley Abbey link the feisty boys of the children’s chorus to the playful Romeos of the adult male chorus. Four boy dancers enhance the children’s scenes with spirited street dancing. Abbey’s invaluable input also includes featured moments for the set of adult dancers.
Despite Milijana Nikolic’s seductive image being seen on flags, posters and flyers around Sydney, the leading lady for the first part of the season is guest artist Margaine, whose Carmen has been performed on many of the world’s top opera stages. Being French, Margaine’s expression and diction in the role are, naturally, wonderful. A luscious voice of liquid gold pours forth with seemingly very little effort, filling the space with glorious sound. Free of the traditional gypsy-like caricature, Margaine makes Carmen a real, if highly sexually charged, person, her magnetism spellbinding the audience just as it affects the characters on stage.
Nominated this week for a Helpmann Award, Lee’s third Sydney engagement is his most enthralling yet. Masterfully controlling his powerful voice, Lee performs with a thrilling intensity that clearly demonstrates why his star is rising so quickly on the world opera scene. A handsomely attractive man with a noble spiritual presence, Lee’s commitment and skill in portraying Don José’s fall from grace results in compelling tension; the audience can see the coming tragedy while the ebullient stage characters remain oblivious
While José’s Flower Aria, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” can sound exquisite with pianissimo phrases, Lee’s rendition is anchored by a steely power that makes it all the more exciting. Carmen’s manipulatively scornful response, “So you don’t love me?” is crushingly disappointing to José, sealing the pair’s ultimate fate.
Soprano Natalie Aroyan successfully portrays the wide-eyed innocence of winsome young Micaëla, singing the role with nicely understated confidence and a lovely pure tone. Micaëla and José’s act one duet “Parle-moi de ma mère!” is so lushly romantic that a man and woman sitting three rows ahead were seen embracing at its conclusion. The tender joy that José could have known with Micaëla makes his wild-headed passion for Carmen all the more heartbreaking.
A host of talented Australian singers are distinctive and engaging in the supporting roles.
Michael Honeyman’s initial appearance as Escamillo is hampered not just by his glossy red magician’s suit, but because Bell’s construction of the central story is so involving that Escamillo’s act two entrance, singing the celebrated Toreador’s Song, is, for once, an unwelcome distraction. Honeyman is in fine voice, and his subsequent scenes are more successful. Escamillo’s final costume, a black lace-trimmed emerald green bolero jacket over black vest and pants, is one of the smartest of the night.
Charismatic bass Adrian Tamburini brings an exciting presence to the often under-appreciated role of military leader Zuniga, singing with commanding focus and power. Baritone Christopher Hillier provides a contrast with the more grounded character of fellow member of the militia, Moralès.
Jane Ede and American mezzo-soprano Margaret Trubiano give animated performances as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès, tottering precariously in high heels and short nightclub dresses. The pair ably supports Margaine’s exceptionally precise work in the Card Trio, “Melons! Coupons!”.
Kanen Breen and Luke Gabbedy complete the quality casting as flashy smugglers Remendado and Dancairo. The pair joins Margaine, Ede and Trubiano in a nimble, entertaining rendition of brisk act three quintet “Nous avons en tete una affaire.”
One of the world’s most popular and familiar operas, this new production of Carmen is essential viewing for all operagoers, and the music theatre vibe brings an extra level of accessibility to newcomers. While we all pray that Opera Australia will be able to secure Yonghoon Lee’s services again, in the meantime his performance here is unmissable.
Carmen plays selected dates at Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 12 August 2016.
Photos: Keith Saunders