★★★☆☆ The gypsy is spellbinding but Bizet’s intimate tale lacks, well…intimacy in this operatic spectacular.

Bizet’s Carmen with its gypsy rhythms and smouldering passions has proved an adaptable gift to producers and directors across a whole range of artforms, traversing the globe from Broadway to Cape Town. Sydney, then, should prove a small hurdle, and in many ways Gale Edwards’ handsome production manages to project the essentials across the 100 metres or so required to enter the eyes and ears of a sizable audience. In other ways though, this intimate tale of two people drawn together by an intense sexual bond, struggles to take hold of hearts and minds.

Maybe the problem lies with the opera itself, written for the modest environs of the Opéra-Comique in Paris. With the exception of the glittering arrival of the toreadors for the final bullfight, every scene either takes place at night or in a confined space – certainly nothing bigger than a town square. Carmen’s inherent naturalism also requires a subtlety of gesture, mood and emotion. It’s a huge challenge to make a show, where intensity of feeling is written on every face, pay off on a stage the size of a football field and where at least 60% of your audience are, by necessity, a long way from the action.

The fireworks at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Carmen. Photos © James Morgan.

That Edwards succeeds at all is a credit to her experience with the large scale and a design team that understand the problem even if the solutions are not always convincing. The director musters her huge company with an eye for balance and comes up with imaginative choices to convey emotion though large-scale gesture. The final scene where Carmen and Don José circle each other like hunter and prey is gripping, while Carmen’s Seguidilla, played on the end of a very long rope, manages to convey a great deal of sexual magnetism.

There are some messy cuts and inexplicable changes of lyric. The absence of the chorus of urchins simply removes a slice of Bizet’s ‘picturesque’, but the axing of the character of Lillas Pastia and a sizable amount of Meilhac and Halévy’s dialogue causes the storytelling to lurch uncomfortably from set piece to set piece. Don José in particular loses a lot of motivational text.

Brian Thomson’s monumental bullring of a set in black and blood red reflects Edwards’ vision of the opera as an evening-long fight between man and animal. Cleverly, the action and the audience are behind the illuminated CARMEN sign, in the dirty, backstage world beneath the glamour. So far, so good. Except, of course, glamour, one feels, is what her producers have asked her for. This tension between what the opera is and what counts as operatic spectacle dominates an uneven evening.

Thomson’s powerful playing space inspires John Rayment to come up with a great deal of atmospheric lighting including some magical onstage flame effects. Julie Lynch’s post war Franco era costumes prove effective at differentiating character but close to resemble a Mardi Gras parade and lack much in the way of dramatic logic. When everyone else is muffled up for a night time’s smuggling trip, for example, it’s a miracle that no fascistic sniper has picked off Carmen in her ‘look at me, I’m over here’ scarlet organza number! The spectacular bits come off rather well. Two huge cranes deposit a truck and a tank in the town square (although why they can’t drive in is not entirely clear). Escamillo descends in a spotlight from the same crane for his big fight (again for no obvious reason other than ‘because we can’). But there are equal and opposite forces at work too, like the slightly campy choreographed fight scenes and a tendency to be heavy handed with the glitter pot.

From a musical perspective it’s also a game of two halves. There is some spectacular singing from a fine cast of principals who manage to keep up with Brian Castles-Onion’s pacey, energised reading of Bizet’s delicately refined score. What it all sounds like in the centre seating block I’m afraid I can’t tell you, but from far audience left, which is where I was sitting, the sound design left a lot to be desired. The voices are all picked up and balanced nicely but the orchestral sound is a mess with tinny strings and muffled bass. As a result, detail is lost in the lower voiced instruments (cellos, basses, timpani), and overall the engineered sound picture lacked depth.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen

Back to that fine cast of principals though. Israeli born Rinat Shaham makes an outstanding Carmen, svelte and sexy and with a voice that you can imagine good men dying for. Hers is quite a fruity mezzo, with a powerful bottom, but she also uses her instrument with a great deal of imagination and finesse, caressing a phrase here, leaning on a word there. She’s not afraid to make bold interpretive choices too and, of all the cast, manages to successfully project her character without sacrificing the subtleties. A force of nature then, and the appropriately throbbing heart of this production.

As Don José, the Ukranian tenor Dmytro Popov is almost as successful, singing the role with skill and flexibility. His slightly ‘baritonal’ voice is reminiscent of Domingo in the role and his Flower Song is delivered with immaculate phrasing and a ravishing top B flat. If his José feels slightly underdeveloped it is because he is missing some important dialogue early on.

Carmen in the tavern.

Escamillo, a character who never does anything by halves, is nicely played by Australian baritone Andrew Jones. His celebrity arrival has him looking spookily like a cross between Elvis and Opera Australia’s AD Lyndon Terracini, but he soon reveals a fine voice, used with panache, if occasionally short of beauty at the very top. His stylish knife fight where he plays Don José as bull is very nicely handled.

Nicole Car makes a surprisingly passionate Micaëla, giving Carmen more of a run for her money than is sometimes the case. Vocally she is clear as a bell, with excellent diction, but she is inclined to sing the entire role at forte and the voice occasionally comes under pressure at the top.

In the smaller roles there are some fine voices as well. Adrian Tamburini is a beautifully focussed, strutting Zuniga while Sam Roberts-Smith and Luke Gabbedy shine as the two smugglers. Ariya Sawadivong and Tania Ferris are fine vocally as Carmen’s gypsy girlfriends, but sadly their characters are reduced to ‘sexy’ skirt lifting and clichéd provocative squatting.

So an impossible task, some might say, managed with moderate success by a savvy director but marred (for some at least) by some poor sound engineering. The final scene rather says it all:  Carmen and José give their all for ten minutes of intimate, sexual duelling, their tiny forms conveying everything in spite of the vastness of the arena. And then the moment is spoiled by the appearance behind them of the world’s largest bull carcass complete with sparkly toreador. Less, as they say…

Read our new magazine online