Opera Australia Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini must have a pact with the weather gods.
Showers and thunderstorms were forecast for the opening night of the second annual Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, but the rain kept well away from Mrs Macquaries Point. The audience was unfortunately denied the sight of Sydney’s well-to-do in black tie and poncho, but the warm, humid evening provided the perfect atmosphere for a steamy performance.
It’s inevitable that Gale Edwards’ Carmen is going to be compared to last year’s La Traviata. It’s completely understandable. They both have the same blueprint and Traviata was such an artistic and commercial success for Opera Australia, the question on everybody’s lips was, could they do it again? The answer is a resounding yes!
But they’re very different nights at the opera. If Traviata was about classically beautiful glamour and spectacle, Carmen is about sexy, gritty, red-hot passion… and spectacle. Director Gale Edwards has been let off the leash and allowed to make this Carmen as sexy and visceral as Bizet’s sumptuous score allows.
In the title role is Israeli-born mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, who seductively slinks across the stage, turning both emotionally and physically every few seconds. Her singing is both technically sublime and full of drama. After playing Carmen in 37 productions around the world, she clearly knows the woman inside out and delivers a masterful and dazzling performance.
She’s matched by Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov, who’s perfect as jilted lover Don Jose. He plays the character with a mixture of school boy naivety and mad passion and has a voice to remember, with a luscious upper register.
Nicole Car is undoubtedly Australia’s best young operatic voice and her talents aren’t wasted in the relatively small role of Micaela. She gets some of the most beautiful vocal moments in the score and makes the most of every phrase. Andrew Jones as Escamillo is a strong dramatic presence, even if he sounded a little breathless in his first aria.
They have set designer Brian Thomson’s floating, bloodstained, bull-fighting ring to play upon, complete with flying tanks, trucks and shipping containers. The set feels dark and moody with the backdrop being the back side of massive red Hollywood-style letters, spelling out ‘Carmen’. It’s also the only set I can think of that also doubles as a massive advertisement on prime Sydney real estate.
Julie Lynch’s costumes are equally bold, with splashes of colour and plenty of sparkle, making huge impact even from a distance. The yellow and black Federico Fellini-inspired dresses and hats in the final act are stunning.
Making an even bigger impact is Kelley Abbey’s choreography. Drawing on years of experience, Abbey’s work provides the greatest moments in the show. It’s not just big, flashy movement, it’s fiery, intricate choreographic gold. The dancers are so sharp and powerful that it’s impossible not to be swept up in the moment, even from seats in the back row.
Though the visual elements of the massive production threaten to draw focus from the musical experience, Bizet’s score is rendered in a glorious, lively fashion by conductor Brian Castles-Onion and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. No, the amplification in an outdoor venue doesn’t provide the same sound that you’ll get in the Opera House, but it’s perfectly clear and the sound of water lapping against the shoreline adds a real sense of serenity.
Gale Edwards has absolutely triumphed in bringing every fine element of this stunning production together. The fact that she can pull something that’s so artistically fulfilling out of the bag under such immense pressure proves her ability to stand alongside the greatest directors in the world. If there’s somebody in Australia who knows what the weight of expectation feels like, it’s her. Thankfully, she’s exceeded our sky-high expectations.