Saturday, March 30, 2013


Opera Australia presents Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, CARMEN by Georges Bizet.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) presents its second season, following on from last year's LA TRAVIATA, with Gale Edwards' spectacular production of CARMEN by Georges Bizet (1875).

In the open balmy air of a late Sydney summer, on a stage suspended over the Sydney Harbour foreshore, near the site of the colony's first farm: Farm Cove (how startled would the ghosts of that first settlement and the indigenous population be tonight?) surrounded by the contemporary skyline of the city of Sydney, with the glowing sails/shells of the Sydney Opera House to one side, in the background, with the passing of harbour ferries and other flotilla, reflecting off the moon struck/lit surface of the harbour waters,
In keeping with CARMEN'S military theme, HOSH marshalls a veritable army of artists, performers and technical crew, ... Regiments include 154 performers kitted out in 284 costumes; 490 staff and crew, together with 50 volunteers. Their arsenal of weaponry includes 1320 metres of LED lighting and two 24-tonne cranes reaching 26 metres in height. While the top brass principals are bunkered down in dressing rooms beneath the stage, the enlisted men and women of the chorus occupy 16 shipping containers set up like barracks beneath the audience seating. At musical HQ, the orchestra pit has been expanded and reinforced to keep the troops happy under the vigilant baton of their musical general.
A spectacle of an opera, indeed. An epic effort of organisation on a scale of shocking dimension and organisational 'nightmare' harnessed under the aegis of Ms Edwards. It is a success on almost all value systems.

SPECTACULAR, is the word.

Brian Thomson has designed a massive abstracted red ringed 'bull ring' with a black surfaced (historically, black and red, is, almost, this designer's signature) raked floor, tipping the cast towards the audience. We see the back side (and, so,back-to-front) huge signage of the name of the opera CARMEN, covered from our point of view, by ladders and platform scaffolding, on which the chorus can look down and participate in the action. The dark outline of a bull sits waiting for its cue to ignite in red neon-like splendour. A centre piece of the upstage of the arena can open hydraulically into a kind of vomitorium, for the entrance and exit of the cigarette girls and patrons of the bullring. Practical, large scale properties - a tank and truck of the era of the Franco war in Spain are craned-in, spectacularly, from opposite sides in act one; as is a large shipping container for the act three warehouse. To capture all of this and support the emotions of the story, the lighting by John Rayment is dramatically bold, matched by costume designer, Julie Lynch, with iconic character splashes of colour: e.g. blue for the 'good girl', Micaela; red for the 'bad girl', Carmen and "realisms" of the soldiers uniforms, etc. Clear design solutions for such an epic visual scale problem.

To make this operatic piece work at this location, location, location – imaginative staging is demanded. Ms Edwards triumphs in the first three acts with deft and brilliant organisation of the massive 'crowd' scenes. But, even more fortuitously, her skill creates dramatic focus and power in the intimate character scenes as well. In the open air with all of the visual dimension of a Sydney night in one of the most glamorous locations in the world, simply with two actors/singers tied to each other, each at one end of a taut rope, Ms Edwards burns into our concentrated memory retinas the great duet between Carmen and Don Jose in act one - it is one example of unforgettable visual staging and powerful storytelling, that she conjures for us throughout the night. Assisting the impact of the work is the Choreography of Kelley Abbey. The opportunity to use the uncurtained space with the densely atmospheric scoring in Bizet's music preludes and entra-acts are not wasted by these two artists, but seized excitedly, and a thrilling, and sexually propelling blood pump is given to the performance with dynamic dances and dancers (Mr Bonachela-eat your heart out - DE NOVO!!! ). Even the chorus is managed to move as one - a miracle. That that this does not carry through to the last act after the stunning solo of the flaming red 'skirt' (Kate Wormald) with the arrival of the bull fight's crowd, flags and all is, sadly, anti-climatic (perhaps time became a problem?) Fortunately the music is compensation.

Rinat Shaham sings, dances and moves as one dreams Carmen to be. A great, daring, sexually explosive performance. (Carmen an extraordinary Victorian heroine  - in fact the class of all the characters of this opera a period exception - revolutionary.)Dmytro Popov as the hapless, mummy's boy, psychopathic killer, Don Jose, grew and grew musically through the opera to great account. Nicole Car sang 'goody two shoes' Micaela, beautifully - it is, to my ear, the least interesting music. Andrew Jones was a disappointing Escamillo, for whilst looking the part, he did not have the vocal excitements that the role has to give. He could not either with precision or power match his fellow's powers. Musically the performance dimmed. I also enjoyed Samuel Dundas as Morales, and Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga, both these men, singing and physically emanating immense sexual power.

The orchestra hidden beneath the stage, conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, gave a wonderful sound, communicated to us, as were the singers by the electronic wizardry of Tony David Cray. Mr Cray must be worth his weight in gold to Opera Australia for the sound was accomplished, indeed - it matches his work that I heard last year in DIE TOTE STADT. I don't much like the use of electronically amplified sound - there is no real choice, of course, for work on this scale, and, as I have said, well done here - but when the chorus in act four sing the supporting noise in the ring, contrasting to the drama of the final bloody duet on the stage between Don Jose and Carmen, it did not work at all dramatically. The sound is, though softened, still projected at us, and one is not required to endow the moment with a scintilla of our emotional life. Dramatically, the opera performance begins to go off the boil in this production's final act, and one is not moved, one simply watches - distanced. The sexual empathy of the deaths of Don Jose and Carmen indicated in the pulsing of Bizet's score and in the action of the libretto, is not posible. It sounds all too mechanical - too, ironically, dead.

(Diversion: It is my observation that the musical theatre has lost its appealing power as a result of a dependence on the electronic amplification of the singers and the orchestra, (the disaffection from musical theatre began for me with the electronic presentation of the orchestra with Burt Bacharach and Hal David's PROMISES, PROMISES (1968) - remember, that orchestra were in a covered pit too? although, there was a plastic bubble, center-pit, so that the conductor's head and shoulders could be seen by us!) At the musical theatre today the music is projected AT us.Washing unremittingly, over us, whether we want to hear it or not. No effort is necessary from the audience to engage in any concentrated way. It lands on us unflinchingly. I love it when the performers 'unplug' (remember that moment in the Barbara Cook concert at the Lyric Theatre, a few years ago, when, after a long night of electronically assisted singing she unplugged for the encores - what a difference in temperature in the audience - how we listened, how we joined Ms Cook in the performance - the contract for listening was changed - it was amazing), and I have noticed when this does occur, all of us audience participants do, lean in to the music, and make a contributive effort to hear the communication. We are invited to work with the unassisted singer/orchestra and real theatrical exchange happens. A Shared Experience.)

My first introduction to CARMEN was listening to an old 78rpm recording of my dad's with Lawrence Tibbett, singing on one side of the record, the Toreador Song, from CARMEN, and on the other side, the Te Deum at the end of act one of TOSCA - thrilling. I played it over and over again. I remember the CARMEN JONES (1954) movie musical version with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (sexy film I remember. I was young and probably didn't know what sexy was, of course! , but I was , strangely, moved) and, perhaps my first full scale opera version of CARMEN was at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1982 with, the only thing I can really recall, the Josef Svoboda design! - I do remember being disappointed. The film based on the Hemingway novel THE SUN ALSO RISES (1957) with Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Ava Gardener and the Pedro Almodovar film, MATADOR (1986) have always evoked the CARMEN story. Bizet's L'ARLESIENNE SUITE has always thrilled me. THE PEARL FISHERS, except for that duet, always a bit boring. CARMEN in contrast, always a popular choice. That Georges Bizet died at the age of 36 in 1875, on the 33rd performance of this opera is, surely, one of the great tragedies of operatic history.

In the essay in the Handa Production program, Philip Sametz tells us:
To put Bizet's death in perspective, had Verdi died at 36 his final opera would have been LUISA MILLER (1849). No RIGOLETTO, no LA TRAVIATA, no IL TROVATORE - no OTELLO ! At that age Wagner had just completed LOHENGRIN. CARMEN was Bizet's first masterpiece, and his last work. Even at this remove, it is tempting to speculate on what he might have created with the new-found brilliance that calls out to us from every bar of the score.
The international ABC of the Opera repertoire, box office money makers: A for AIDA; B for LA BOHEME; C for CARMEN. Gale Edwards has for Opera Australia given a cash cow, and, by the way, an acclaimed artistic success, with her recent and present version of LA BOHEME. Now with CARMEN another exemplary artistic success - box office too, it seems, looking around me,  no empty seats on the night I went! And, as well, last year, a critically stunning success for one of the world's most difficult operatic works, Strauss' SALOME. Dr Haruhisa Handa, the founding Chairman of The International Foundation for Arts and Culture (IFAC), the major sponsor of this work,  and the Opera Australia Board led by Ziggy Switkowski, with Lyndon Terracini as Artistic Director, must be congratulated for the vision and trusting faith that they have had in this great Australian artist. A for AIDA is the only one of the magic three that Ms Edwards has not yet done for the company, it must be next, I guess. One would be foolish not follow through - for the company and the audience.

To marshall all this company for this HANDA OPERA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR production of CARMEN, from the smallest contribution to the larger contributions, and succeed, requires an artist of great vision, will, know how, and tenacity. A personality and passion driven by the muses of the theatre.

Gale Edwards, deserves congratulations.


Even the weather 'gods' have listened to her. What gifts, connections she must have. Ha.

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