R. Shaham, Car, Sawadivong, Ferris; Popov, Roberts-Smith, Gabbedy, A. Jones, Tamburini, Dundas; Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Opera Australia Chorus, Castles-Onion. Production: Edwards. Opera Australia OPOZ56043BD, 141 mins., subtitled
Sydney's spectacular harbor, with its glorious maritime vistas, provided an open-air setting for Opera Australia's big, bold, flashy Carmen (2013). If the live video recording doesn't exactly capture seaside breezes, it does manage some beautiful effects, such as a circle of bonfires glowing mysteriously and suspended in the dark.
With an opening sequence that involves lowering a tank onto the stage (a blood-splattered circle designed by Brian Thomson), backed by huge red neon letters spelling out the Gypsy's name, this might be "Carmen: The Blockbuster Musical." The vampy vulgarity of Rinat Shaham's spread-eagled habanera, stroking rifle shafts and lap dancing in a red babydoll nightie, gets things off to a rocky start. Director Gale Edwards paints in bold strokes — Escamillo's entrance in a car, Zuniga's vicious beating — but doesn't skimp on detailed emotion in the intimate moments, particularly the lovers' Act II duet.
Edwards uses the space cleverly for the seguidilla, playing with distance and connection in the long rope José has tied around Carmen's waist. But the opera's ending is a mess and is poorly filmed: with no undertones of violence or any hint of menace from José, Carmen has to work herself into hysteria and is apparently slashed with a knife as José runs past her.
Julie Lynch's costumes range from the expected (flamenco dresses and lots of red) to the bizarre (Remendado and Dancairo as Australian adventurers on acid), with her best work the striking yellow and black polka-dotted couture gowns for the Act IV parade.
Musical values aren't a top priority, even though the performing edition, with almost no dialogue, is pared down to the highlights. Orchestra and conductor Brian Castles-Onion are out of view, and the singers work around cheek mics while embracing and kissing. Tempos are fast, sometimes ridiculously so (the smugglers' quintet can be a charming piece, if the singers aren't sputtering), but choreographer Kelley Abbey's dance sequences are particularly effective. A slowly smoldering duet leads into the clapping, stomping and growing excitement of "Les tringles des sistres tintaient." A flamenco turn sets the stage for flag-waving pageantry and an impressive display of fireworks as the toreadors enter the stadium in Act IV.
Once the poorly conceived habanera is out of the way, Shaham grows into a Carmen of vulnerability and determination, her voice ranging from smoky mystery to brilliant defiance, and she meets the demands of the outdoor venue with subtlety and command. Dmytro Popov's somewhat veiled tone eventually achieves immediacy, with a secure top and soft-edged phrasing that helps situate Don José as a romantic dreamer, out of place in Carmen's tawdry circle. Nicole Car brings sturdy sincerity and a robust sound to the role of Micaela, but Andrew Jones's Escamillo yells without much charm or variety. Ariya Sawadivong and Tania Ferris compete in Frasquita and Mercédès's card game like high-school frenemies and frantically attempt to distract Carmen from her fatal reading.
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