Zambello’s handsome Carmen is graced by some fine performances, and not just from the horses.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

February 3, 2014

The American director Francesca Zambello cut her teeth on a combination of symbolist opera and the mega-musicals of the 80s and 90s. Over time her vision has distilled into one of essentially heightened naturalism, and her handsome Royal Opera House Carmen, dating from 2006 and first seen here in 2008, is fully representative of her ability to handle the intimate while keeping a weather eye on the epic. The symbolism still has its place – horses as Lorcaesque representations of male sexuality, the bullring as sacred space of love and death – but those wanting a no-nonsense, true to period, traditional take on Bizet’s masterpiece need look no further.

Tanya McCallin’s simple but adaptable set – beautifully lit in golden russets and ochres by Paule Constable’s detailed, sultry lighting ­– conjures the heat and passion of 19th-century Spain with its rigid social structure, its aloof bourgeoisie and its semi-criminal underclasses, instantly creating the fevered, intimate space that Gale Edwards’ heavy-handed juggernaut on the harbour last year so singularly failed to carry off. Within this theatrical design, complete with convincing orange tree and water trough, Zambello deploys her actors with much attention to detail and the daily business of her small-town community. If it occasionally veers into ‘chocolate box’ territory, and there are some slightly awkward mimed conversations, it is never less than watchable and holds the attention throughout.

The production has another major asset in the form of conductor Antony Walker in the pit. From the first beat of his thrillingly driven overture onwards he reminds us of the sheer genius of Bizet’s memorable score and his growing reputation before his tragically early demise as France’s great musical colourist. Walker has ideas in terms of balance, tempi and phrasing and isn’t afraid to use them – listen to the exquisite entr’actes with their lovingly detailed (and played) solos for flute, bassoon, clarinet and oboe – or the soaring strings in the interlude before the bullfight. It’s a joy to be carried along by his zesty reading of a score that in lesser hands can sound over-familiar or routine.

The cast is led, as in last year’s harbour production, by the fine Ukranian tenor Dmytro Popov, whose Don José grows in confidence as the evening progresses. His rendition of the Flower Song is beautifully shaded with a delicious diminuendo on the high B Flat. Elsewhere his dark tone occasionally obscures elements of his French pronunciation but it’s an excellent instrument that carries over the loudest forte. Dramatically his assumption of the frequently unlikable José is notable for conjuring our sympathies. Playing up his naïve simplicity and the awakening sexuality of a man who's been buried in remote village with a cloyingly sainted mother pays dividends, and Popov carries it off with control and dignity.

As his femme fatale, the Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera comes trailing a string of Carmen credits as long as your arm – The Met, London, Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden Rome etc. It’s a gorgeous voice, warm and fruity with power at the top (a lovely optional high note in the Seguidilla) and no coarse, chested bottom notes to mar the musical experience. She is inclined, though, to insist on her own tempi, frequently slower than the conductor appeared to wish, and I’d have to say that my instinct said that his instincts were invariably correct. Herrera has the emotional line in place, sweeping onto the stage on a gust of blowzy sensuality, ready to squeeze her oranges into the mouth of any man who opens wide but, at the end of the day, she doesn’t quite have that vital spark that makes ‘La Carmencita’ stand out inexorably from the crowd. A pity, as she doesn’t put a foot wrong in other respects, capturing the complexity of this woman who demands freedom yet needs a man to survive, and working her way up to an excellent dénouement with her desperate ex-lover. Her performance should please many.

Chief honours amongst the supporting cast must go to Natalie Aroyan, singing Michaëla for an indisposed Sharon Prero and revealing a soprano that captures the French soubrette to a tee. She’s a Moffatt Oxenbould Young Artist who has studied with Freni, Bonynge and Te Kanawa and it shows. Her big aria was winningly sung with excellent diction and clarity, building a more confident character than can sometimes be the case. She takes over the role properly from March 18 and on this showing will be well worth a trip.

Michael Honeyman had all the notes for Escamillo, singing with firm, attractive tone, but was fatally upstaged by his horse on his first entrance and never really recovered. His scene with José should really show his superior charisma and sex appeal, but it was the tenor who appeared the more compelling lover throughout.

Elsewhere, Adrian Tamburini was a watchable, resonant Zuniga, rather more dramatically nuanced than Christopher Hillier’s arm-waving Moralès. The two smugglers were ably portrayed by Luke Gabbedy and Sam-Roberts Smith, the latter displaying a fine baritone that makes you want to hear more. Jane Ede and Tania Ferris made a nice double act out of Frasquita and Mercédès, achieving a fine blend with Herrera in the card trio.

Finally, a word of praise for the excellent children’s chorus (boys and girls). I’m not sure where they come from, but they sing with pleasing tone, great confidence and they have their individual characters and detailed routines down pat. Whoever got them up to scratch deserves a good old pat on the back.

A production well worth the ticket price, then, with some excellent voices and much to recommend it in the dramatic stakes. Oh, and one of the horses (sadly not credited in the programme) even gets to curtsey at the end!

Carmen runs at the Sydney Opera House until March 29.