His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth
July 24, 2018

There is no better place to stage Bizet’s Carmen in Perth than in His Majesty’s Theatre. The theatre itself is almost completely red; red walls, red carpet, red seats. In addition to the shock of red, the theatre was completely full, and the heat of the numerous people packed in together complemented the colour scheme quite appropriately. It really felt like a red hot, sweaty day in Carmen’s Seville.

Carmen, West Australian Opera, reviewMilijana Nikolic and Paul O’Neill, left. All photos © James Rogers

Dan Potra’s sets for Carmen’s Seville struck the perfect balance of effective and functional, with rocky, white walls and industrial-like ladders easily manoeuvrable along the expanse of floor that reflected whatever light was shone onto it. After the curtain rose, the floor was a striking red; at the beginning of the third act, it was a ghostly blue. Midway through the fourth act, the walls were positioned to trap Don José and Carmen in close proximity (literally, the walls were closing in) and the crisp white of the wall brilliantly contrasted with the streak of blood left behind by Carmen’s dead body. Such thoughtful set design was mirrored in the lighting; looming shadows were often thrown up against the walls by the lower lights in sinister moments, adding another dimension to the drama. There may have been more instances of such thoughtful stagecraft; however, from my seat in the ‘upper circle,’ the top left-hand portion of the stage was all but invisible to me. Much of the action took place in this pocket of the stage, and I imagine this too would have involved intelligent and well-placed lighting and sets.

Carmen, West Australian Opera, reviewEmma Pearson and Paul O’Neill 

I may not have been able to see the entire opera, but I certainly heard it. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra had colonised the pit of His Majesty’s Theatre, and after a whip-cracking overture, settled comfortably into the delightful tunes and dramatic range of Bizet’s score (despite a few chords ending with haphazard cut-offs.) under the baton of Antony Walker. The production was incredibly well-sung throughout the night, both chorus and soloists alike. Emma Pearson soared beautifully above the orchestral texture as the chaste, angelic Micaëla; her performance of Je dis que rien n’épouvante a beautiful combination of restraint and power. James Clayton was thrilling as Escamillo, maintaining a powerful vocal presence even when singing offstage, and Paul O’Neill’s Don José gained vocal momentum throughout the evening as his character developed towards a threatening yet commanding performance in the fourth act. The most complex singing came from Carmen herself, played by Milijana Nikolic; her coy, restrained performance of L’amour est un oiseau rebelle only hinting at the extent of her range, and the force of both its high and low extremes. I came to appreciate the intricacies of Nikolic’s complex dark tone more and more as the opera progressed, and found it extremely fitting for the role of Carmen – a voice as multifaceted as the character herself. In addition to the marvellous singing, the opera was supremely well-acted, with Nikolic standing out as a master of both the natural and the theatrical.

Despite the fantastic performance onstage, much of it was lost on those who didn’t speak French; I would assume this would be nearly all of the audience. The surtitles were sporadic and difficult to follow in their intermittence. Initially, I had assumed that the libretto must contain a significant amount of repetition. However, it became increasingly clear that there was something wrong, and whatever issues were encountered were not solved during the interval. My very limited French vocabulary revealed very little about the libretto (I should have paid more attention in Year 10 French!) but the phrases that I could pick out indicated a proficiency in the French language amongst the cast. Luckily, the onstage performance was convincing enough that the story of Carmen was not lost on the audience.

Carmen, West Australian Opera, reviewMilijana Nikolic

The story of Carmen has been the subject of debate for years. Is Carmen an unstable, dangerous femme fatale who poses a threat to the social order and must be destroyed? Or is she an empowered, free-spirited woman whose resistance to the oppressive patriarchy incites an unforgivable act of male violence and leads to her truly tragic death? Any production that adopts the former interpretation would be unforgivable in today’s cultural climate; violence against women is a prevalent issue in Australia today, and the #MeToo movement has permeated many industries beyond Hollywood. Perth theatregoers, including myself, were appalled with WAAPA’s recent production of Carousel, which depicted violence against women as a normal part of romantic relationships the same week that Eurydice Dixon’s body was found, raped and beaten, in a Melbourne park.

I feared that Carmen would go down a similar path. Luckily, with Lindy Hume directing, this production was fiercely feminist and highly critical of male control and violent domination. Hume’s treatment of the opera’s female characters was highly nuanced; Frasquita and Mercédès urging Carmen to be safe around Don José, and the tavern scene in which Carmen guided the reluctant female dancer away from the oppressive male gaze were particularly touching moments. The male characters were defined according to their relationships with the female characters, rather than the reverse. Don José’s horrifying possessiveness and Escamillo’s magnetism were presented to the audience as they were perceived by Carmen. We were viewing the opera through Carmen’s perspective, and all her choices, her decisions, were emphasised as legitimate and rational; her free spirit grounded in intelligence and necessity rather than whimsy or primal urges. This made her death extremely tragic; with the walls closing in, staring death in the face, Carmen’s demise was presented as untimely and unjust.

If only the opera didn’t end on a major chord! However, despite the limits of Bizet’s score, the wonderful performance from the cast, and the superb direction of Lindy Hume allowed the audience to overlook that final sound.

West Australian Opera’s Carmen is on at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, until July 28 but is sold out

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