BWW Review: The Colours Of Cuba Breathe New Life Into Opera Classic CARMEN

Thursday 16th June 2016, 7:30pm, Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Opening Opera Australia's 2016 Winter Season, John Bell's (Director) new production of Georges Bizet's CARMEN is a high energy explosion of colour. Recognisable melodies and iconic images of Havana are blended together to retell this passionate story of infatuation, independence, strength and seduction for a modern audience.

Clémentine Margaine performs the title role in Opera Australia's new production of Carmen.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders

Traditionally set in Southern Spain's Seville, acclaimed director John Bell has opted for a contemporary setting of the somewhat mysterious, retro Cuba which recently relaxed its embargos and became more accessible to international visitors. Set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell has created a weathered Spanish style village square bordered by doorways, balconies and garage doors. The space remains relatively consistent as the action helps transforms it from the square outside the Cigarette Factory, to Lillas Pastia's Tavern complete with outdoor tables and chairs, the Smuggler's lair and the streets near the Bullring. The square transforms with Trent Suidgeest's lighting from lamp lit lair to the bright sun of the bullfight day. The generally muted tones of Scott-Mitchell's set allow Teresa Negroponte's bright costumes to stand out and express the personalities that fill out the story, from the bright patterns and textures of the villagers' day clothes, the seductive silhouette of the girls evening attire, the severity of the military uniforms and the bold showiness of the Torero and Smugglers.

The Opera Australia Chorus in Carmen.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders

Bizet's rich, textured music which reflects the sounds of Spain is interpreted with sensitivity by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Andrea Molino. Big chorus numbers are filled out with passion and intensity by the Opera Australia Chorus and Children's Chorus who are joined by adult and child dancers which add an energy and vibrancy to the production.

Opera Australia's new production of Carmen.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders

As country girl Micaëla, Natalie Aroyan gives the innocent outsider a purity and sweetness to reflect her nature. Both physically and vocally, Aroyan presents the overwhelmed conservative "girl next door" with a devotion and wariness that conveys that she just wants to find Don José, deliver the letter from his mother and hopefully return home with him by her side. Micaëla's wholesome nature and tone is contrasted with the gypsy Carmen (Clémentine Margaine) who embodies passion, fire and a flighty lust. Margaine presents the impulsive Carmen with a strong rich warmth as she is intrigued by Don José who initially ignores her attention.

Yonghoon Lee (Don José) and Natalie Aroyan (Micaëla) in Opera Australia's Carmen.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders

The object of both Micaëla and Carmen's affections, Don José is presented with an initial innocence by Yonghoon Lee. As the army corporal, Lee expresses Don José's transition from gentle country boy, having left home following an argument with his mother, to serve in the army, to angry, infuriated and infatuated lover, too naive to realise that Carmen has flings not long term romances. Don José country simplicity is countered by the Torero Escamillo (Michael Honeyman) who is a bolder, more masculine and glamourous suitor for the shallow Carmen. Honeyman presents Escamillo with a gravity of his self-assuredness that Carmen will be captivated by his charms yet also a realistic attitude that he knows that Carmen is changeable.

Adrian Tamburini (Zuniga) and the Opera Australia Chorus in Carmen.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders
Margaret Trubiano (Mercédès), Michael Honeyman (Escamillo) and Jane Ede (Frasquita) in Opera Australia's production of Carmen.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders

Bell has presented an interpretation which, drawing on the retro feel of Cuba, highlights the contrasts exposed in the well-known Opera Comique. As the differences between Micaëla and Carmen, and Don José with Escamillo are highlighted, so are the types of love affairs Carmen engages in. She is attracted to Don José because he ignores the hype and fanfare, even ignoring her to start, but is swayed to favour the prestige and glamour that surrounds Escamillo. Whilst Carmen is an independent woman who gets what she wants, there is an absurdity to all the characters making them hard to sympathise with even though there is a degree of relevance and relatability to modern society in the characters. Bell plays up the ridiculousness of the story with the inclusion of comic moments like the riot squad being engaged to deal with the arguing cigarette factory women, the children mocking the military drills and the presentation of the Escamillo prior to the Bull Fight. He has created detailed visuals for the group numbers, from his interpretation of Lillas Pastia's tavern to the celebrating crowds waiting for the fight.

Margaret Trubiano (Mercédès), Yonghoon Lee (Don José), Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) and Jane Ede (Frasquita) in Opera Australia's production of Carmen.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders

Drawing on contemporary images and the currency of the interest in Cuba, CARMEN is a great opera for both regulars and those new to the genre as even though the plot is somewhat bizarre, it is relatively easy to follow, even with minimal reference to the surtitles. This is a colourful explosion filled with recognisable music that has crossed into many facets of mainstream media.

Opera Australia's production of Carmen.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders


Opera Australia

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House


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