The second collaboration between Opera Australia and veteran director John Bell, the opera benefits immensely both from Bell’s heightened theatricality and his finely honed emotional acuity. Where lesser directors can drown a work in heavy handed concepts, Bell’s inspired update to modern day Havana is a masterstroke. Honouring the origins of Bizet’s musical influence for the score, the setting replicates the dry, dusty heat and fiery passion the story requires. Military police and underground crime coexist, and everyone dresses in festively vibrant tones.
The mix of sex and violence is previewed with an opening tableau of couples engaged in altercations straddling a fine line between physical and sexual. Bell masterfully dresses the stage with performers, drawing the eye to key relationships. As Carmen sets her sights first on Don José then Escamillo, the emotional beats of the story land with sterling clarity. In a particularly effective touch, Carmen’s reading of the cards is handled with dark seriousness, avoiding the potential melodrama of her repeated drawing of the death card. The audience has a moment alone with Carmen at the end of act three as she collects herself before heading off to join Escamillo, knowing it could lead to her end. Strong engagement with Carmen, and further gravity in the direction, leads to a highly affecting climax.
Premiering in Sydney last year, the production looks splendid in Melbourne’s larger State Theatre. Michael Scott-Mitchell recreates the sun-bleached, crumbling architecture of Havana in hyper realistic style, cleverly staging each of the four acts within the one large-scale set. Lillas Pastia’s tavern becomes a VW combi van serving street food, and the smuggler’s depot is a large warehouse full of boxes of exotic goods.
Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are a riot of vivid colour. From the street kids to the factory girls, all are attired in eye-popping shades of red, purple, yellow and green. The military sport various shades of fatigue chic, and even the Mr Big of the subversive smugglers wears an oversized fuchsia overcoat. When Don José relents and join Carmen and the smugglers, he is symbolically given a coloured jacket to wear.
A cheeky gang of tearaways, the children’s chorus add early verve to the production as they mock the changing of the guard. They return in act four, filling the musical interludes during the parade of toreadors with more crisp, athletic street dancing. Choreographer Kelley Abbey also provides high energy moves for the stunningly dressed toreadors in the parade.
If there is a particular quality to the performance, it may be because so many of the artists have the work in their bones. Less than a fortnight after completing Carmen for this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, maestro Brian Castles-Onion is back on the conductor’s podium, and more than half of the lead cast are back on stage, albeit a couple of them in different roles.
Castles-Onion starts proceedings with Orchestra Victoria flying through the overture at a cracking pace. By contrast, the audience is warmed back into the story after interval with a dreamily mellow performance of the third act entr’acte. Castles-Onion’s innate musicality supports an intelligent reading of the score, allowing Bell’s stage work on mood and relationships to be strongly supported by the shimmering orchestral playing.
The Melbourne season is fortunate indeed to be led by Rinat Shaham, one of the world’s most experienced and acclaimed interpreters of Carmen. Rather than looking like an interpolated diva, Shaham’s Carmen rises organically from the people. She is attractive, sultry and tempestuous and yet always in control of both the situation and of herself. Shaham’s deliciously voluptuous vocals bring all manner of colour and shading to the role, all the while grounding her as a believably rounded individual.
Shaham’s appearance alone is drawcard for the season, but her castmates are more than up to the challenge of matching and complementing her central performance.
In his Melbourne debut, rising Ukrainian tenor Dmitry Popov excels as Don José, convincingly taking the young man from loving son and dutiful soldier with a trouble past to threatening rebel and possessed killer. Popov’s flexible, effortlessly pure tenor is a pleasure to hear. His rendition of “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” known as the Flower Song, is exquisite with tender piano and pianissimo dynamics fortified by unwavering breath control.
Fresh from the playing the title character in Sydney, exceptional singer-actress Sian Pendry is unrecognisable as lively bottle blonde Mercédès. Ever delightful performer Jane Ede reprises her giddy Frasquita, her clarion soprano ringing out over orchestra and singers alike in ensemble sequences. Shaham enjoys great chemistry with all of her co-stars, but when she joins force with Pendry and Ede they make a particularly formidable trio.
Stepping up as the natural successor to Nicole Car, young soprano Stacey Alleaume makes a highly auspicious hometown debut. Dressed in innocent cornflower blue, Alleaume’s Micaëla projects an angelic innocence in contrast to the grasping city dwellers. Alleaume’s heavenly soprano is at its very best in act three aria “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante,” which Alleaume finishes with a gorgeous pianissimo as soft as breath itself.
Shane Lowrencev has an imposing presence as swaggering toreador Escamillo and sings the bass-baritone role with apparent ease. In his third consecutive season of Carmen, Adrian Tamburini now owns the role of Zuniga. Tamburini provides such a menacing masculine presence that the lieutenant’s comeuppance is all the more satisfying.
Carmen is first rate entertainment. It is as close to a piece of music theatre that an opera newcomer could wish for, as well as being a highly satisfying and wonderfully entertaining production for opera aficionados.
Carmen plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 26 May 2017.
Photos: Jeff Busby