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Review: Carmen at the Sydney Opera House

Reviewed by Priscilla Issa

It appears Sydney cannot get enough of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Based on the 19th Century novella written by Prosper Mérimé, the opera has become arguably one of the most well-known and widely performed operas. In the original plot, Don José’s gambling and thieving ways provide the catalyst for murder and exploration of the dynamic between Carmen and her lustful military lover. So popular is the plot that the tumultuous relationship has entered its fourth reassessment by Opera Australia in recent years.

Renowned Shakespeare director, John Bell, as in many of his stagings has opted for a contemporary setting – something akin to 1950s/1960s Havanna, Cuba. The infectious rhythms and lively street dances, as well as Teresa Negroponte’s retro colour palette selection of fedoras and checker-patterned suits are all nods to timeless furnishings and fashion. Aided by Michael Scott-Mitchell’s plaza - with its burnished stonewalls, decaying balconies and sun-soaked pavement – the environment serves to act as the perfect location for a world of pimps, whores and crooks.

Amidst the misconduct of the local military – with its machismo and downright sexism – as well as the turning a blind eye toward contraband freely passing through the streets, Carmen would not have been the unruly and rough ride it’s known for without Bell’s convincing reading of the tumultuous central relationship. José’s intended path from hesitation to unhealthy obsession was clearly executed by Roberto Aronica. His ability to simultaneously convey a regretful boyfriend and a lustful pining over temptress Carmen was extraordinary. Links between Jose’s desperate need to please his mother and his insatiable craving for the ‘forbidden fruit’ – particularly his childlike collapse in front of Carmen - was a clever allusion to a kind of Freudian mother-complex. This character arc was expertly conveyed through unwavering vocal technique. It was soft and delicate in loving and passionate moments. It was powerful and resonant in thrilling and dramatic moments.

Veronica Simeoni’s portrayal of the central character was certainly interesting. Played in a fun, flirtatious and carefree way, one might say she has paved the way for new and exciting takes on the beloved character. This bravery deserves commendation. As is often the case with largely identifiable characters in opera like Carmen, a single performance by a leading soprano in the industry can come to define how the role should be portrayed. Arguably, Elina Garanca’s sexy, seductive and alluring Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera has become the staple for other mezzo sopranos. While Simeoni’s Carmen was a far stretch from what audiences have become accustomed to, the eccentricity of her Carmen cleverly detracted from her impending doom and ultimately set up a shocking and brutal finale. This is not to say that the audience lost the sultriness of Carmen. Simeoni’s velvety, luscious timbre and the changes between her clear middle register and dark lower register provided the right amount of edginess to keep audiences hooked onto the troubled character from the beginning through to her demise. The singer’s highlights were none other than her textbook reading of the Habanera and Seguidilla. Furthermore, her blend with co-star, Aronica, as well as her listening skills in ensemble, particularly alongside the jovial Frasquita and Mercédès – played by the wonderfully talented voices of Sharon Zhai and Agnes Sarkis, respectively – was truly masterful and representative of Simeoni’s musicianship.

A standout performance was undoubtedly Claudia Pavone’s innocent and truthful portrayal of the unfortunate and neglected Micaëla. Her deceptively tricky aria was handled with ease. Audiences were lost in her crystal-like soprano tone. It must be said that this performance was the first in the opera where the singer truly immersed themselves in the plight of the character. Pavone looked noticeably pleased with her execution; it took her a few moments to come out of the trance-like state that she had fallen into. Audiences were delighted to witness this incredible feat.

Another standout was Łukasz Golinski’s Escamillo. This bass-baritone left nothing in reserve; he gave everything he had in the high-lying melodies of the Toreador’s Song. The result was a convincing portrayal of passionate Spanish bullfighter. The audience was understandably impressed giving a rapturous applause.

Kelley Abbey’s energetic choreography was a fun and clever directorial choice. While one may not expect to come to the opera and experience elements of music theatre, the fast pirouettes, grand jetés and intricate tango work provided the right kind of Havana energy that might otherwise have been lacking amongst the opera chorus. Congratulations must be given to the energetic gymnastics and urban popping and locking of the Opera Australia’s Children’s Chorus who played a gang of young hoodlums. Their dances felt a little out of place against the 19th Century musical score, but the boys delivered with unrelenting confidence. Well done.

Conductor, Christian Badea, was a force to be reckoned with in the pit in chorus numbers. His orchestra brought out the beauty in Bizet’s final act with extraordinary technical proficiency. The momentary nervous pitch glitches by woodwinds in the overture could be forgiven with the adoption of vast dynamic variation and intricately woven textural melodies. Perhaps Badea could have been more attuned to the singers’ needs for pause between various phrases during the arias in order to provide the necessary lingering Spanish rubato.

Nevertheless, it will be fascinating to see how the vocalists, dancers and orchestra continue to gel over the next few months. This production is well worth a look for many reasons. Be sure to catch Carmen at the Sydney Opera House between now and late March.

Image Credit: Keith Saunders

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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