After a wildly successful 2016 season in Sydney, John Bell’s new production of Carmen has arrived at the Melbourne Arts Centre. Highly anticipated, Carmen is the second collaboration between Opera Australia and veteran director and founder of Bell Shakespeare, John Bell.
Bell has taken a few liberties with Bizet’s Carmen, transporting it from 1820s Seville to ‘somewhere resembling the Cuba of today’ and infusing the production with an ambiguously modern touch. The changed setting allows the production to escape the profusion of flamenco dancers and toreadors that so often accompany Carmen, replacing them instead with breakdancing street kids and salsa-ing couples.
Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set is a perfect replica of the sun-bleached and crumbling architecture of Havana (and of Seville, as a matter of fact) and all four acts are cleverly staged between Scott Mitchell’s hyper-realistic walls. Lillas Pastia’s tavern turns into a food truck and the smuggler’s hideout becomes a warehouse.
Contrasting the earthy tones of the set, Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are a kaleidoscope of vivid colour. While modern props like carry-on luggage and mobile phones are used, Negroponte’s designs have a distinctly ’50s feel about them, with gangsters wearing bright suits and women in sequins, turbans and fur. The juxtaposition between mid-century and modern, against a backdrop of renaissance era buildings proves to be confusing for some opera goers, who could be overheard wondering about the when and where outside the Arts Centre doors.
The story of Carmen is one of corruption, power, destruction, love and jealousy. Carmen, an enigmatic gypsy woman sets her sights on an innocent country boy serving in the army and barracked in her town. Don José misses his mother and the girl he loves, Michaëla, back in his hometown but is soon transfixed by the seductive Carmen. Arrested for fighting, Carmen seduces Don José to win her freedom and convinces him to desert the army and his past to join her in the gypsy life. Unfortunately for Don José, Carmen’s affections are brief and she soon falls in love with another: the handsome bullfighter Escamillo. Between Don José’s jealousy and Carmen’s portentous reading of the cards, her fate is sealed. The dichotomy between sexual violence and sexual attraction, with jealousy and possessiveness at the core, reaches a crescendo in the confronting final scene, which, disturbingly, brings to mind the pages of today’s newspapers, Australia’s problems with domestic violence and the weight we give to a woman’s sexual decisions in leading to her death.
Israeli-born Rinat Shaham plays Carmen, a character she has perfected in over 40 productions around the world. Sultry and tempestuous, Shaham oozes sexual energy. Her mezzo-soprano vocals are rich and soulful and it is clear why she is such a highly acclaimed interpreter of the role. Unfortunately, Carmen’s costuming leans toward the frumpy and her dark dresses tend to fade against the popping colour of the author performers. Negroponte has opted for a simpler Carmen but the clean A-line skirts in maroon or black take something away from the gypsy wildness that is Carmen. This might not have been an issue at all had the advertising not included Carmen in a dramatic flowing red dress, cut impossibly low. Needless to say, neither this dress, no anything like it, appears in the performance.
Dmytro Popov, another foreign import (this time of Ukrainian origin) makes for an incredible Don José. A resonant and pure tenor, Popov convincingly takes his character from innocent country boy and dutiful soldier to dangerous gangster and jealous killer. He is effortlessly compelling, his voice resonant and fierce, full of conviction and passion.
Shane Lowrencev’s Escamillo is robust and he sings the bass-baritone role with apparent ease. His rendition of the aria ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’ (or the Toreador Song) is especially magnificent. Soprano Stacey Alleaume, playing the good and brave Micaëla, was something else altogether. Sweet, angelic and powerful, Alleaume was a breath of fresh air and indeed, her performance received the loudest applause.
Behind these incredible voices, Brian Castles-Onion expertly led Orchestra Victoria through the score in a shimmering, swelling performance that would have astounded on its own.
This is a powerful production of Carmen, filled with strong voices and compelling stage chemistry. The costuming, with the historical ambiguity and dressed-down Carmen is a little disappointing for opera goers hoping for all the glitz and glamour of most Carmen productions.
Director: John Bell
Starring: Stacey Alleaume, Jane Ede, Luke Gabbedy, Christopher Hillier, Shane Lowrencev, Sian Pendry, Dmytro Popov, Benjamin Rasheed, Rinat Shaham, Adrian Tamburini, Opera Australia Chorus, Orchestra Victoria
Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion
Set Design: Michael Scott-Mitchell
Costume Design: Teresa Negroponte
Lighting Design: Trent Suidgeest
Choreographer: Kelley Abbey
Fight Choreographer: Nigel Poulton
Assistant to Choreographer: Elysha Manik
Revival Director: Roger Press
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Season: 4 – 26 May 2017