WITH Opera Australia’s announcement today saying its Sydney summer season has smashed its own box office records with more than $14 million taken from New Year’s Eve to April 1, the success of its revived “Carmen” must be the cream on the top of the cake.
For in spite of predictions that revival of this site-specific production of Bizet’s “Carmen” by director Gale Edwards’ and designers Brian Thomson and Julie Lynch might result in some relaxation of standards, the 2017 production is simply superb.
No doubt a great deal of this success can be attributed to Edwards’ original conception of an intimate personal drama with dance, fireworks and spectacle to fill the largest opera space in Australia.
But the dynamic approach of conductor Brian Castles-Onion and revival director Andy Morton contribute to making this production convincing and memorable. As well, the Opera Australia Chorus, never less than excellent, brings life to this very familiar opera, playing variously cigarette girls, soldiers, bandits and other colourful characters.
Everybody knows the story of the wilful gypsy girl brought down by her own lust for independence, with a large dose of fate thrown in.
Based on a story by Prosper Mérimée, Georges Bizet’s opera is considered to be just about the world’s favourite, and yet it suffers from dramaturgical weaknesses in the form of Don José’s wimpish behaviour, Carmen’s waywardness, and the fact that unlike most operas, it varies between song and spoken word, meaning that the celebrated “hit” arias like the Habanera, the Seguidilla, Don José’s Flower Song and Escamillo’s Toreador Song usually stand apart as set pieces.
The lead roles of Carmen, Don José, Escamillo and Micaela Carmen alternate throughout the season, which concludes on April 23, but I will confine myself to the singers I saw.
In the hands of Spanish tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don José and Sicilian singer Josè Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen, those dramaturgical weaknesses disappear entirely. From the outset, Lo Monaco’s Carmen makes her intentions abundantly clear, also seen when she meets the toreador Escamillo (Luke Gabbedy) and they exchange words in an unmistakably insinuating way.
Gorrotxategi’s Don José, for his part, while full of appropriate filial feeling and a sense of duty, is quick to respond to Carmen’s intentions and shows no prevaricating inclination towards the country girl Micaela, heading straight towards the destiny assigned to him.
So hell-bent are the two main figures on self-destruction that in a sense the other lively figures, including Carmen’s girlfriends and fellow-bandits, disappear into the background. The one exception is seen in the strong performance by Natalie Aroyan as Micaëla, whose determination to save José is made all the more poignant by his total lack of interest in her. In all these characterisations, the groundwork laid by Edwards in her original production is clear, but so too is the exceptional dramatic capacity of the lead singers.
The popularity of this opera is no doubt enhanced by that colourful set and costumes, the imaginative choreography by Kelley Abbey and the fight choreography by Nigel Poulton, providing a rare and exciting spectacle against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour – boats in the water and helicopters above.
But for me, the centre of this “Carmen” is the passionate intensity of the two principal characters played by Gorrotxategi and Lo Monaco. The fact that Carmen would simply run away from Don José at the bullring is made totally credible as she willingly rushes into his arms and his dagger. This is in every way a tragedy.