With Opera Australia fielding three different productions of Carmen over the last five years – John Bell’s fine new Cuban take replacing Francesca Zambello’s traditional staging, and Gail Edwards’ bleak offering on Sydney Harbour – it’s not as if Australian audiences need to go out of their way to catch Bizet’s greatest hit. To make an outing worthwhile, a cinema showing needs to tick one of several boxes at least: insightful staging, impressive music-making or sheer operatic star-power.
Opera di Roma’s Carmen. Photos © Opera di Roma
This version from Opera di Roma may not boast the greatest names on today’s circuit, but it does come with a promising concept. Like Bell, Argentinian director Valentina Carrasco has plumped for a Latin American setting – in this case Mexico – but, rather more boldly, she chooses to go for the here and now, the better to bring out the contemporary resonances of Bizet’s story. Like Edwards too she has an open-air setting – in this case the spectacular ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. But unlike the drab Carmen on the Harbour, which chose to ignore site specificity, Carrasco has embraced the bleached stones of Ancient Rome that dominate her stage to create an atmospheric symbiosis with the work of Mexican Spaghetti Western legend Robert Rodriguez and his regular collaborator Quentin Tarrantino.
In Carrasco’s post-Trumpian production, a marginalised woman like Carmen is dangerous. The society in which this ‘gypsy’ struts her stuff is violent, impoverished and dangerous. It’s a culture where drugs mean money, migrants are on the move, and smugglers make a living as people traffickers thanks to a semi-complicit soldiery. Most topically of all, her Carmen is a woman who may, and often does, give herself to a man, but if she chooses not to, then no means no. And yet for all that strength, at the end she will lie covered by a sheet of newspaper in the dirt, an outsider and a symbol of everything the Trump administration seems to fear on its southern border.
Samal Blak’s gritty set design with its grey, graffitied border wall is enlivened by souvenir stands peddling Day of the Dead memorabilia. Scenes like the children’s chorus playing with guns take on an added resonance, while the Seguidilla, where Carmen coolly washes the dirt from her body, is infinitely sexier than the usual hip-wiggling routine. Other moments work less well. Carmen’s dance with a fake python comes off badly in close up. In fact, Erika Rombaldoni and Massimiliano Volpini’s choreography is unimpressively cod. The Day of the Dead March of the Toreadors is spectacular but the skeletons with the tumbleweed and their subsequent ballet just made me giggle. The little girl who stands for fate is a nice touch, though it could be a lot creepier.
Italian mezzo Veronica Simeoni is a noted Carmen, her voice rich and sufficiently wine-dark. Her interpretation pushes all the right buttons, but she never entirely convinces that she isn’t doing her usual shtick, just in sleazier clothes. More problematic is Roberto Aronica, a tenor with limited stage charisma, poor French and a tendency to bellow (his Pinkerton in the Met’s current Madama Butterfly suffers from the same faults). At least he scrubs up for the Flower Song, exhibiting a decent array of top notes.
It’s Italian soprano Rosa Feola who steals the show, playing neatly against the text to create a convincingly and unusually aware Michäela. Her clean voice is quite special, firm and appealing across the full range – one to watch, I’d say. Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov is on the clean-cut, boy next door side as Escamillo, but it’s a reasonable voice and he makes for a more appealing lover than Don José.
Frasquita (Daniela Cappiello) and Mercedes (Anna Pennisi) wriggle appealingly alongside the Dancairo of Alessio Verna and Pietro Picone’s Remondado. Their Act II quintet is a musical highlight. Voices in minor roles and the chorus sound isn’t up to the Opera Australia standard, but the acting isn’t bad and Carrasco has come up with plenty for them to do, nicely fleshing out this nasty, brutish and short micro culture. In fact, the camera angles actually help us focus on telling detail and little background stories that in reality might have been distracting.
Veteran conductor Jésus Lopéz-Cobos’s attention to texture and colour is admirable though he occasionally plods. There’s a tendency to scrappy coordination between orchestra pit and stage, but no more than with all open-air operas.
So, should you head on down to your local cinema? Simeoni and Feola are certainly worth hearing, so if you are in the mood for Bizet’s tune-a-minute score there’s not too much amiss here. At the end of the day, it’s nice to see the old warhorse handled by a Latino woman, and as Carmens go, it’s a ‘modern’ production that hits the right topical notes and will make admirable sense, even to those who habitually dislike ‘modern’ productions.
Opera di Roma’s Carmen is in Palace Cinemas November 17 – 22.