Review: This ‘Carmen’ takes the bull by the horns

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OPERA Australia has taken the bull by the horns as it tackles what it calls “the most famous opera in the world” — Bizet’s “Carmen.” 

Rinat Shaham as Carmen. Photo by James Morgan
Rinat Shaham as Carmen. Photo by James Morgan
Famous, maybe, best certainly not. For the ill-starred combination of the self-willed Carmen and the ineffectual Don Jose is such a mismatch that the opera strains credulity.

Significantly, Bizet wrote not a single love duet for the two central characters, making it a most unorthodox work.

Gale Edwards’s adopts a larger-than-life staging of what is essentially an intimate tragedy, opting for dramatic gestures and lavish Spanish dance interpolations expertly choreographed by Kelley Abbey, but which had the effect of holding up the action, the very opposite of the pared-down approach made famous in director Peter Brook’s famous “Carmen”.

The mixture of spoken word and aria adopted in this production are faithful to the opera’s initial staging at l’Opéra Comique of Paris, but render it patchy. As well, the enormous arena by the harbour makes the final prolonged standoff between the two main characters almost impossible to pull off. “Laisse-moi passer — let me pass,” Carmen cries from the middle of a paddock-sized stage that leaves her plenty of room to run.

But does anyone care about such quibbles? This, after all,  is “Carmen”, the most famous opera in the world, with more recognisable tunes than any other.

OA’s staging and casting gives flesh to the tale. Israeli soprano Rinat Shaham (Milijana Nikolic doubles) presents a menacing, voluptuous presence, her full-bodied voice hinting at contralto tones. A formidable, glamorous stage personality, she slinks and strides around the stage, arriving by sports car for the bullfight, to the evident delight of the audience.

Dmytro Popov (Adam Diegel doubles) as Don Jose made the most of his difficult role, using his passionate tenor to make both his ardour for Carmen and his genuine love for his mother seem real and comprehensible.

Andrew Jones (James Clayton doubles) as the macho bullfighter Escamillo exudes confidence, almost persuading us (unless you’re reading the subtitles carefully) that his love affair with Carmen is the real thing, while Nicol Car (Sharon Prero doubles) gives a refreshingly gutsy interpretation of Jose’s village girlfriend Micaela.

Edwards and designer Brian Thomson have combated the sheer size of the performance arena with clever stylistic devices.

By setting the action in the Spanish Civil War era, they enhance the picture of soldiers versus renegades, effecting lightning-quick scene changes with the help of two enormous cranes that swing back and forth over the stage.

Secondly, in a brilliant stroke, Thomson turns the arena into a veritable bullring, backed by the gigantic neon outline of a bull. If you’ve read Hemingway’s’ “Death in the Afternoon” you’ll know that the bull must die, and so it is with Carmen.

We knew from pre-show interviews that OA director Lyndon Terracini wanted fireworks for this harbour-side spectacular, but nobody guessed that those fireworks would happen in the second last scene, before in Jose despatches Carmen.

In this way, Edwards and Thomson get the fun out of the way before the concluding tableau that reveals the dead bull upstage and the dead Carmen centre stage. The lives of ordinary people are thus successfully elevated to mythic status.

The bull, the fireworks, Photo by James Morgan.
The bull, the fireworks, Photo by James Morgan.

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Helen Musa
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