BWW REVIEW: Opera Australia's Revival Of Handa On Sydney Harbour's CARMEN Is Entertaining But Not True To The Creators Vision
Friday 24th March2017, 7:30pm, Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie's Point, Sydney
Bizet's CARMEN's big dramatic imagery, colourful crowd scenes and bold iconic music lends itself to a major spectacle like HANDA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR (HOSH), the jewel in Opera Australia's annual programme so it is understandable that they have opted to "revive" the 2013 production. This year's work is however hampered by controversy following the thoroughly justified media release from Gale Edwards, Brian Thomson and Julie Lynch, the original Director, Set Designer and Costume Designer respectively, whereby the trio of original creatives have distanced themselves from this revival.
Having been forewarned that this production may not be what Edwards, Thomson and Lynch originally envisaged, I took the opportunity to view a recording of the 2013 production. For those that may be interested, a full copy has been found online: http://eachvideo.com/watch?v=zSH4rs5AbnU
For the most part, revival director Andy Morton has retained the original vision of this stunning work that is filled with colour and movement. His deviations however do alter the impact of the message Edwards intended to convey. This revival has lost some of its fire and sensuality with Carmen's (Josè Maria Lo Monaco) habanera L'amour est un oiseau rebelle being less provocative and somewhat dull, failing to convey the highly charged sexuality of the story. Similarly, the soldier's response to the innocent Micaëla (Natalie Aroyan) is more taunting rather than overt sexual harassment, downplaying the dangerous intent that lurks in their minds. Variances in stage blocking and character interaction has also diminished the implied relationships, particularly Carmen with her friends Frasquita and Mercédès ( Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano respectively). Other notable deviations are the smugglers are now trading in guns and weapons, carrying on large munitions boxes, rather than duffle bag filled with parcels of cocaine. Given the work is presented as a period piece it seems unnecessary to change the contraband and potentially is only done to play on the global fear of terrorism. The revival has also moved the HOSH standard inclusion of fireworks from the festivities awaiting the bullfight in Act 4 to provide a flourish to the Act 2's Toreador Song. An alternative, implausible in comparison to the relative realism of the rest off the work, delivery of the toreador Escamillo (Luke Gabbedy) has however been included to add spectacle to the crowd awaiting the bullfight.
The biggest and most shocking change is relates to the finale. As with all the other violence and sexual harassment that has been downplayed, Morton has watered down Edwards' biggest statement in Don José's (Andeka Garrotxategi) murder of Carmen when she won't return his affections. What should be a brutal scene of Don José making a strike for Carmen's throat with a knife as he runs past her, resulting in a stunned but defiant Carmen turning to the audience to reveal a slashed throat before collapsing is diluted to Don José holding Carmen against her will and thrusting the knife into her abdomen before collapsing in remorse filled grief above her. Morton has also done away with the final scene of a triumphant Escamillo standing over the slain life sized bull that was to appear from the trap door upstage, an imposing scene that was to echo the slain Carmen. All of these changes, particularly the ending, are a bold move for a revival director, particularly when Opera Australia released a counter statement claiming that they "painstakingly and lovingly" present their revivals "as true to their original format as possible".
For this production, José Maria Lo Monaco and Andeka Gorrotxategi have been bought in to fill the lead roles of Carmen and Don José. Given the variations to the work, it is harder to pinpoint elements to the performer or the revival director's choice. For example La Monaco does not give Carmen the expected level of sensuality and seduction that would be expected of the gypsy who sells her body and will pick her men based on advantage, instead opting for a perpetually pissed off demeanour indicating that she is using the men, not having any true affection for any of them, only using them as it suits her. There also appears to be breath control issues as phrases are split which is also hard to determine whether it is a directorial choice or the singer's capability. Gorrotxategi tenor vocals are solid and clear as the Corporal Don José, presenting a degree of naivety and a quieter character than Toreador Escamillo and Lieutenant Luniga (Adrian Tamburini), hinting at his small village upbringing.
A stand out performance comes from Natalie Aroyan who returns to the role of Micaëla, having taken on the village maiden for John Bell's traditional stage production in 2016. Her beautiful soprano voice conveys an innocence and love in her Act 3 aria presented from high above the stage, as she emerges from her hiding spot. Aroyan's dramatization of the role has a delightful nuance and subtlty to convey Micaëla's joy at hoping to find Don José, her fear of the soldiers and the precariousness of her hiding spot, and the disappointment at the rejection of affection. Similarly, Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano take on Frasquita and Mercédès again, having filled the role in Bell's production. These two give a fun and energetic performance, adding levity against Lo Monaco's more staid and sour Carmen. The new direction however doesn't help the trio establish the understanding that they are all friends, rather putting Carmen as an outsider drawn in to the Smuggler's plot as an extra body.
Luke Gabbedy's portrayal of the flamboyant and confident Toreador Escamillo is another stand out performance. He gives the superstar bull fighter a swagger and gravitas that it's hard not to want to fall at his feet. His bold Bass Baritone vocals are clear and textured and he captivates the audience. Adrian Tamburini's presentation of Lieutenant Zuniga is also compelling as he carries himself with an importance and confidence that he has power over both his soldiers but also the women he pays.
With the aid of the Opera Australia Chorus and some delightful dance numbers, this is a visually stunning production with a generally full sound, even if the chorus hasn't always been given a subtext for their motivations for movement. The orchestra, led by Brian Castles-Onion meets the challenging task of performing beneath the stage with the usual wonderful expression of the music. The orchestral music is mixed with the vocals, each singer wearing a body mic, by sound designer Tony David Cray with generally good results given the challenge of the open air venue but there were moments where the balance of the soloists was out of kilter with the rest of the performance leading to a skewed presentation.
Whilst not a true representation of Gale Edwards' vision, this 'revival' of CARMEN is an entertaining night out, even if the underlying messages have been diminished. In keeping with Opera Australia's apparent intent to focus on turning a night at the opera into an experience rather than focusing on the quality of the actual performance, HOSH meets that mandate with opportunities for themed meals before the show, photo opportunities and plenty of outlets to enable patrons to sip champagne whilst watching the spectacle. With recognisable music, big dance numbers, a bold set with the backdrop of the iconic harbour, and the promise of fireworks, this relatively easy to follow story is a nice night out, particularly for visitors to Sydney.
As a side note, to my BroadwayWorld.com Sydney readers, you may also be aware that earlier this year BroadwayWorld.com Sydney's Senior Editor, yours truly, was removed from Opera Australia's guest list just days before the opening night of the 2017 revival of TOSCA with allegations made that I had an 'agenda' because I found their imported artists lacking the quality I had come to expect from Opera Australia.
The Daily Review covered this along with a number of other issues they uncovered in their article Inside Opera Australia: Foreign Singers Favoured While Creative Teams 'Disrespected'.
For the record, I do not have an agenda. As I replied to Opera Australia, I "call it as I see it". If a performer is not giving me the quality I have come to expect from a company I will say it, I won't lie to my readers. Regardless of whether a performer is Australian or international, I will judge them on their ability and my expectations of the company. I will not be drawn into marketing or hype. If a performance is good I will say so. I owe this to you, my readers, and I know you expect me, and the rest of the BroadwayWorld.com team, to be honest in our assessment of performances and to maintain our integrity in all our reviews. I will not give a good review just to stay on a company's guest list.
For this performance, I was given a ticket by another source, not Opera Australia.