G Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after Prosper Mérimée’s novel (1845).
Opera Australia, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 3rd, 2014.
According to operabase.com Bizet’s Carmen ( 1873 – 4) was the second most frequently performed opera, during the worldwide 2013-14 season, with 477 performances, coming second to La traviata (577 performances).
Opera Australia’s 2014 season which opened in Sydney last week is a reprise of Francesca Zambello’s 2006 Covent Garden production, seen here in 2008 and again in 2011. In contrast to Lindy Hume’s previous minimalist, cliche-free creation for Opera Australia, the Zambello concept is unashamedly steeped in glorious Andalusian style and drenched in the colours of the Iberian peninsula..
Realising this vision is an accomplished international cast with Antony Walker conducting the ensemble. It’s an exacting task for the performers with demands on vocal and dramatic talents, dancing, voluminous costumes and cascades of gypsy curls. As if that weren’t enough, the production, (Bizet’s original version with speech rather than the recitative added by Ernest Guiraud in 1875), calls for the ability to alternate between speech and song with a flip of the larynx.
Venezuelan born Spanish mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera who sings the role of Carmen, straddles the worlds of opera and zarzuela as naturally as Carmen might straddle a horse. Her Carmen is sassy, wayward and volatile. She brings to her performance, the rich timbres and subtleties of the zarzuela tradition as she insinuates herself into the heart and the mind of the hapless Don José, played by Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov.
Popov is outstanding. His voice, a tour de force, blossoms through the compelling tenderness of Parle-moi de ma mère! and La Fleur Que Tu M’avais Jetée to the machismo power of Je suis Escamillo and the helpless madness of C’est toi. His dramatic talents support his downward spiral from dutiful son and soldier to love-crazed murderer.
Armenian- Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan’s Micaëla is secure and impassioned with exquisite tone; the power of her voice well modulated to the innocence and fragility of her role. Australian baritone Michael Honeyman as Escamillo supported by Luke Gabbedy as the growling Dancairo and Sam Roberts-Smith as his side-kick Remendado, Jane Ede as Frasquita and Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga created a rich canvas of sound, colour and movement, filling out the parade of characters. Defying the adage of never working with children or animals, both feature in this production – a posse of endearing dusty urchins with their clarion clear voices in the first and final acts, and the two equine stars, Kiko (2) and Drummer (13) add to the verismo feel of the action.
Under Antony Walker’s direction, the orchestra performed Bizet’s brilliant score with verve, the languid dance forms of the Seguidilla and the Habañera a contrasting sharply with the precision of the quintet in Act 2, Nous avons en tête une affaire, the veiled horror of the ‘fate theme’ and the heady anticipation of la quadrille.
Bizet’s music – his melodies and his genius in drawing a character, heightening drama or painting a scene with his orchestration lie at the core of this opera – especially his use of brass and woodwind instruments. Complementing Bizet’s work, the dream team which Opera Australia has assembled for this production creates many unforgettable moments.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
Carmen is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House on selected dates till March 29th, 2014.