Review / Fire without glory- OA’s new ‘Carmen’

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WHEN it comes to operatic hits, it’s hard to beat “Carmen”, with a line-up of favourite arias and songs that modern impresarios can fairly count on to draw audiences in.

Clementine Margaine as Carmen, centre, on table. Photo Keith Saunders
Clementine Margaine as Carmen, centre, on table.
Photo Keith Saunders

The fiery ‘habanera’, plucked by composer Georges Bizet from traditional sources, has made its way into popular culture and there are still many of a certain age who can sing along to the score of that modernised version, “Carmen Jones”. For opera sceptics, this is an attractive work.

And yet, “Carmen” poses more dramaturgical problems than most operas, and it is rare to see a production that fully satisfies. John Bell’s brand new staging for Opera Australia is a welcomes relief from its antiquated predecessor, but can by no means be pronounced a success.

For one thing, its Carmen, Clementine Margaine, despite a wonderfully expressive voice, lacks the fire and presence to play the libertarian gypsy, while her counterpart, the Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, is contrastingly, all fire as the love-smitten Don Jose. So it’s all topsy-turvey and the ill-matched relationship between Carmen and her handsome soldier never gets off the ground.

Then there is Michael Honeyman’s likable, reasonable, Escamillo. Modest in voice and presence, he lacks the ‘celeb’ quality the opera would seem to demand, even in his most famous song.

Bell approaches the opera as if it were a play. And indeed, since it combines spoken word and arias, that seems logical. But he is left to cope with the musical necessity of a huge chorus of adult and child singers, so often places them upstage, allowing the  intimate personal drama to proceed almost separately, downstage.

Entry to bullring, photo Keith Saunders
Entry to bullring, photo Keith Saunders

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set conjuring  up a street scene in Havana, Cuba proves versatile, also serving as a warehouse, an outdoor Harrys Café de Wheels-type cantina and the exterior of a bullring. That  works fairly well, allowing quick scene-changes, but Teresa Negroponte’s Latino colourful and pictorial costumes often lapse into flashiness,  unsympathetic  to the grittiness of Bell’s production elsewhere. This applied particularly to the bullfight rituals when the tinselled picadors and hobby-horses belies the impending catastrophe.

Bell’s collaboration with choreographer Kelley Abbey is more successful and the movement is well incorporated, with no fake ‘set pieces’ intruding on the action.

And yet, in spite of  Lee’s Don Jose and the beautifully-rendered part of Micaela  by Natalie Aroyan, this “Carmen” eludes the tragic dimensions laid down by Bizet. The later-season change of cast may well ameliorate this problem.

Photos by Keith Saunders


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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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