A PACKED house of enthusiasts at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday (February 11) attested to the popularity of John Bell’s “Carmen” and the likelihood that it will stay in Opera Australia’s repertoire for some years to come.
Conductor Carlo Goldstein takes it a little slowl during the exposition, but the opera gets off the ground when Carmen and Don Jose arrive.
Restaged by revival director Roger Press, the production is full of life, colour and Cuban-style visual excesses. Taking his cue from the fact that the famous “Habanera” implies Havana, Bell has transported the story into modern-day Cuba, although references to Granada, Seville and Navarre all remain in the libretto.
It’s hot, it’s steamy, but as Bell has said, “We’re making an opera, not a travel documentary”.
The result is a lively contemporary take on an ageless story, with a fiery performance from Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, as Carmen, and a more knowing than usual Don Jose, played by Argentine tenor Marcelo Puente. Always at the mercy of his passions, his Jose executes a particularly messy killing of Carmen.
Bell, supported by set designer Michael Scott Mitchell, largely pulls off the change of locale, with the action unfolding on a single set dressed up to indicate it’s outside a cigarette factory, at a café, inside the gang’s mountain hideout and near the bullring. The potential for more colour allows costume designer Teresa Negroponte to go over the top in primary colours, with lights, hobby horses and all the trappings of a fiesta.
But “Carmen” is no fiesta, so the party motif and the expedient design do not always come off. While the amusing and effective transformation from town square to a Harry Cafe de Wheels setting for Act II drew laughs of appreciation, it meant cramming the excellent opera chorus, dressed up for the game, into tight confines.
Too much and too many — even the games, tricks and acrobatic entertainment by the clever children and dancers choreographed by Kelley Abbey seemed distracting.
Press just about gets away with it but not in ACT III, which is set in a distant mountain hideout. The opening moment is full of foreboding as the gang prepares to offload contraband goods, but the sudden appearance of the city partygoers, still frocked up, is simply ludicrous and at odds with the unfolding tragedy.
Credibility became a problem when so little was seen of the relationship between the wayward Carmen, whose affairs never lasted more than six months, and her innocent soldier – the distractions also didn’t help. Bell has written eloquently of the psychology that sees the amoral Carmen in the arms of an incompatible lover, but it was not put into action.
Shaham makes an insinuating Carmen, splendid when she rebuffs Zuniga (a bluff Richard Anderson) with the words “cut me, burn me I will say nothing”. Her deep-voiced provocation to Michael Honeyman’s mild-mannered Escamillo, when he appears in Act II —“Amour” —“, is equally provocative, but when she finds the cards of death appearing in Act III, the clutter on the stage is so overwhelming that it is hard to focus on her, the cards, and their tragic significance.
The critics who initially derided Bizet’s opera for being too superficial were not entirely wrong, and there remains something deeply unsatisfying about the ill match between the weak Jose and the arrogant Carmen, whose defiance comes out as less a cry for freedom than sheer bloody-mindedness.
But the festivity, colour and light are well used by Bell and Press. The hobby-horse, alguacilillos, and cartoon-like representations of the crowd at the bullfight allow the stage to be cleared quickly for the final confrontation between the protagonists walking into death while the audience watch, like spectators at a bullfight.
This is a crowd-pleasing production, well served by Shaham and Puentes, with a fully-rounded appearance by Stacey Alleaume as the innocent country girl by Micaëla, who acts as a reminder of the moral world from which Jose comes.
Darkness and light, lust and honour, the mysterious power of sex pitted against the lure of home – this “Carmen” captures all of that.