Georges Bizet’s Carmen is perhaps the world’s most popular opera with more familiar tunes than any other. And as such, it was perhaps the perfect choice for State Opera’s premiere outdoor staged performance – and one, no doubt inspired by Artistic Director Stuart Maunder’s invaluable experience with Opera Australia and its Operas on the Harbour. Carmen is an opera loved by both specialist and dilettante alike – a celebration as it were of grand passion and obsession for a woman who ultimately cannot be tamed.
Helen Sherman. All photos © Soda Street Productions
Playing before a sold-out crowd of 5,000, the performance was aided and abetted by a production which was very much down to basics. Staging was simple, reduced to a pair of scaffold-like structures which became the cigarette factory, the stalls at the bull-ring and indeed the ramparts of Seville itself. Costuming was similarly basic but generally effective given the small amount of funding available. Lighting worked well though at times it appeared that the orchestra was over lit to the disadvantage of the singers and perhaps a few more brightly lit scenes in hot primary colours would have added to the sense of rising passion.
Maunder has generally chosen well with his choice of young singers on the way up, who, while they may have been presenting their first Carmen, Don José or Escamillo have had much stage experience. Helen Sherman’s Carmen was directly sung with her top notes as on the final ‘tourbillon’ thrilling (in Act II’s scene at Lillas Pastia’s tavern and its gathering of gypsies), although I would have expected a little more Gallic grunt to her lower register. James Egglestone (Don José), a familiar figure at State Opera, is a fine lyric tenor who delivered a keenly sung Flower Sung, while bass-baritone Morgan Pearse as the matador can be singled out as the understandable crowd favourite. Equally fine was Emma Pearson’s Micaëla, a role I generally tend to gloss over, but here was a performance which was both touching and heartfelt. One thing that could not be faulted throughout the entire cast was the clarity of diction and for this thanks must go to longstanding language coach for the company, Christine Rothauser.
If a criticism must be made regarding language, it relates to the English language spoken sections of the work being delivered in a broad Australian accent which was only emphasised further by the production’s amplified sound. Generally, the sound was excellent and naturally caught but as always there was a slight harshness to the strings. However, experienced conductor, Oliver von Dohnányi led a fine, well-rounded performance of a score that he obviously knew very well with the reliable Adelaide Symphony responding very well to his direction. Maunder’s idea of bringing it down to basics is understandable due to the size of the audience to which he needed to communicate but there could have been more warmth to the lighting to emphasis not only the heat of the locale but the primal passion the Carmen suggests and arouses in others. In keeping with this, more dance would have given the crowd added pleasure and added to what was often a static presentation.
Amazingly the weather remained fine throughout with just a suggestion of forthcoming rain and there was virtually no interference from either road or air traffic. All in all, Carmen was a great success, although next time, small details regarding seating and sight issues will hopefully be sorted out.