Review: Moody Carmen fails to convince

“Carmen” by George Bizet, based on the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Norwegian National Opera coproduction, performed by Opera Australia at Sydney Opera House until February 29. Bookings to opera.org.au

Reviewed by Helen Musa

 THE applause ran hot and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, except mine. It was, after all, the Opera Australia revival of “Carmen”, often claimed to be the world’s most popular opera, in a version originally directed by Francesca Zambello and restaged by Matthew Barclay.

So why wasn’t I moved by this production?

Don Jose and Carmen, photo Branco Gaica

Don Jose and Carmen, photo Branco Gaica

Certainly the moody, ochre-coloured tones of the set seemed to conjure up 19th-century Seville and the fake orange tree quivered to the tones of the enormous chorus, augmented by so many supernumeraries, children and dancers that you could hardly see the wood for the trees.

It was partly the “busy-ness” of this production that made it seem false to me. Rarely has the stage of the Opera House seemed so cluttered with singers and non-singers gesticulating in the large-scale scenes but without apparent motive. It is rare to see this kind of motiveless theatricality in an age when opera singers are usually also trained to act.

Cigarette girls waggled their hips and rolled their tongues in a kind of parody of sexiness in Act One so much so that even the magnificent Nancy Fabiola Herrera playing Carmen herself seemed somewhat stagey.

All this activity was intended to provide a backdrop to the emerging story of the young corporal Don Jose, played with contrasting and affecting sincerity by Dmytro Popov. Given that character’s ingenuous nature and the deep-revolving atmosphere of corruption around him, this part it is always an uphill battle from the acting point of view, but Popov gave it his best.

After a very slow Act One intended to set the atmosphere, things livened up when we got to Carmen’s underworld friend Lillas Pastias’ tavern and later into the mountains, where  both Don Jose’s home town girlfriend Micaela (sung beautifully by Natalie Aroyan) and the toreador Escamillo (Michael Honeyman), turned up to complicate the plot and expose Don Jose’s vulnerability.Carmen_SS14_217

These two acts were performed in quite a realistic and subdued way, which meant that the final act, staged outside the bullfight in Seville, struggled to achieve the intensity necessary for the final stabbing of Carmen.

Here the traffic caused by having so many people (and a horse) on stage at the one time was confusing, detracting from the sense of focus needed.

The final encounter between Carmen and Don Jose was  bleak and drawn out, like much of the previous action. What a fortunate thing it is that George Bizet’s music captures the heart of the imagination more than any acting could.

 

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