Carmen in a Sydney High Summer

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The Sydney Opera House. Photo: Alan Miller.

Music – Georges Bizet
Libretto – Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 24 January 2011
continues until 30 March

Conductor – Guillaume Tourniaire
Director – Francesca Zambello
Set and Costume Designer – Tanya McCallin
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Arthur Pita

Carmen – Rinat Shaham
Don José – Richard Troxell
Escamillo – Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Micaëla – Nicole Car
Frasquita – Jane Parkin
Mercédès – Sian Pendry
Dancairo – Luke Gabbedy
Remendado – Kanen Breen
Zuniga – Richard Anderson
Moralès – Andrew Jones
Lillas Pastia – Danielle Antaki
Guide – Robert Mitchell

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Opera Australia Chorus, Children’s Chorus and Dancers

If Carmen is a femme fatale, then her opera could play as a kind of hybrid of an Anthony Mann western and film noir. It has the gun runners and even a climactic fight on a rocky crag, but also the weak man haunted by his past, falling in love with the woman he later remembers he doesn’t particularly like. Micaëla would be the innocent girl he really loves, but in trying to protect her from himself, just draws her into his disastrous life. This production, however, is different. Carmen becomes as sympathetic as one could imagine, with no material desires, she loves only freedom but to the point of self-banishment, to paraphrase John Donne. At least, she is sympathetic in contrast with a Don José who is an extreme introvert, more haunted and broken than weak, who eventually succumbs to insanity. Carmen is a rather extreme extrovert which brings its own problems, and the concept of opposites attracting is played convincingly: the pair’s initial mutual fascination and affection becomes binding and they continuously rub each-other the wrong way until they mutually annihilate.

The production begins with a shadowy prelude scene of Don José in irons, which fits the few bars of the overture over which this is placed, even though not in the original libretto. The scene then changes to a relatively cheerful triangular public courtyard with high two storey walls on two sides, plastered and painted in an orange-ochre color. They are angular and more impressionistic than realist representations of the geometry of (period) Spanish architecture. A black trough representing the public fountain cuts down one wall and halfway across the stage and a single orange tree stands in the centre, which is the only physical evidence of nature in  the whole opera — even the rocks of Act II are absent with the angular walls remaining to give the impression of mountain sides. Diverse characters mill about the courtyard — overdressed gentleman and ladies with umbrellas, peasants, washer women, soldiers and children. Thickish stage smoke over the scene gives more the impression of sultriness than dusty dry heat, though the soft orange-tinted lighting is effective.

The especially bouncy and ebullient overture announced the brisk pace of the music and emphasized the movement implied in the very danceable music which continues right through the opera, which the whole cast and chori responded to, particularly in the constant movement of characters in every scene. The choeur des gamins tear around the courtyard, play fighting and scurrying and singing. Even the children here are not entirely innocent: one knocks down and pretends to shoot his crutch-dependent friend, and the kids’ “ta ra ta ta ta ra ta ta” imply machine guns from their miming rather than snare drums.

The cigarières emerge with a cloud of smoke from a dark cavernous space behind a huge door in the wall. They saunter out leisurely but deliberately as they take over the courtyard and fountain-trough — each takes her turn washing her legs in the water, which is kind of gross, but this becomes a bit repetitive after the second or third time. They alternately flirt with men in the courtyard, and then flick or push them away. Carmen’s entrance is forceful but unhurried as she in turn monopolizes the attention of the courtyard. She can’t help but move with her habanera — mostly from the hips and arms, quite jazz-like. She uses the whole set, straddling the fountain-trough and pushing Don José’s papers off his small table in the other corner — he writes in his journal rather than mending his scabbard as the libretto says — so we sympathise with his initial annoyance at being interrupted from his solitude. But then we realize perhaps he unconsciously wanted to be interrupted so he picks up and pockets Carmen’s flower and watches her.

Don José’s exchange with Micaëla is over quite quickly and so seems rather urgent, even furtive, as if José is deprived of such warm and tender personal interactions. Micaëla’s kiss is prolonged and quite passionate, not “‘un baiser de ma mère’ … bien maternel”, implying a Micaëla less pure than the libretto indicates. She lingers behind at the other end of the courtyard as José reads his mother’s letter approving of his marriage with her.

The fight in the cigar factory, Carmen’s duet with Don José, her arrest and escape also happen fast. The fight spills into the courtyard, the over-the-top screaming even drowning out the orchestra somewhat. The duet is more calm, but the pair move about the stage constantly, parting and rejoining, tethered by the rope which binds Carmen’s wrists. Mr Troxell’s voice is filled with urgency and Ms Shaham’s with persuasiveness but also interest in him. He grasps desperately to her “vous m’aimez” as if he wants to believe it and wants to feel something of Micaëla’s kindness in her. After Carmen’s escape, Lieutenant Zuniga instantly tears off Don José’s epaulettes, more of the expedient and hypocritical military (in)justice. Don José gradually loses his costume from this point onward, until he is in rags in the final scene.

Although months pass between acts, Mr Tourniaire takes only the briefest pause to wipe his brow, carrying on all the momentum from the last scene to Lillas Pastia’s tavern in Act II. Mr Pita’s dance is a quite modern stylised flamenco with some zapateado but not ultrafast, and with some acrobatics jumping on and off the one long table and one-handed somersaults. The crowd in the tavern gyrate and at the climax of the scene some clever lighting casts their shadows at all different scales against the walls, multiplying the already frenetic activity. Escamillo the torero enters with his entourage, piling into the already packed stage. He jumps up and off the table with his famous energetic song.

After the crowd exits, Don José enters. Carmen dances for him as he slouches in a chair. Their subsequent altercation becomes very dynamic alternating between wrestling and passionate embracing as Mr Troxell’s insistent tenor with its bright metallic edge contrasts with Ms Shaham’s warm, passionate, rounded voice, often modulating in tone, as they sing at odds with each-other. In the end it seems to be as much the hypocrisy of Don José’s drunk CO’s reappearance in the tavern as his infatuation with Carmen which drives him to desertion, not a pure case of weakness of will.

Act III scene 1 opens with subtle shadowy lighting and several bright campfires about the stage. The contrabandiers march in, and sit around the fires on their ammunition boxes and put up a large tent. From the forceful passion of Dancaïre, the military-green “uniforms” of the smugglers, the tightness of the band and Carmen’s raised arms and eyes when she sings “la liberté!“, they seem more like 20th Century revolutionaries than mere profiteers. They seem as likely to attack Seville as to smuggle arms through its walls. This also makes the scene more threatening — they are fanatics with a cause, living day-to-day, ready to die violently.

In contrast, Don José’s fight with Escamillo is quite comical at first, as they roll and trip and grapple, though it becomes apparent that Don José’s clumsiness is a result of desperation and pressing insanity. Don José has been something of a pacifist until this scene, he takes part more in guard duty and retreats than war and fighting. As his behaviour becomes more and more wild, Carmen seems more and more reasonable, though by no means ever innocent. Micaëla appears literally above all this at the very top of the wall. She brings a more natural empathic anxiety and understandable apprehension to the scene hitherto dominated by Don José’s insanity and the fanatic self-assurance of the contrebandiers. She is lit with a bright halo, as if she were some kind of feckless guardian angel.

Act III scene 2 opens with a full stage — as full and dynamic in its way as the courtyard in Act I and Lillas Pastia’s in Act II. Orange sellers, gentlemen gypsies etc. bring to the scene colors more primary and light than the ochres and dark oranges and reds of the other acts. The scale of this scene of hyperactive commerce and the parade following is worthy of that of the music. The parade culminates with a float carrying a painted, life size statue of the Virgin surrounded by dozens of thick church tapers. Escamillo and Carmen lead the crowd in genuflecting in front of it. The stage clears, and while the crowd get their taste of blood in the arena, Carmen and Don José’s argument in the empty square outside becomes physical. They use the whole stage, now quite starkly and cooly lit. Don José would seem unreasonable enough through Mr Troxell’s acting and desperate pleading tone of voice even without the suggested attempted rape. Escamillo with his insane profession and egocentric tendency doesn’t seem a much better romantic choice, and Carmen becomes quite sympathetic even before her murder.

Ms Shaham had good control in modulating her beautiful earthy voice from a not-too-shrill stridency to the deep sultry notes. Her fine acting created someone more than a stereotypical gypsy or flighty female. Her Carmen was not so much a femme fatale as a woman who was her own boss albeit under constraints, for whom I felt more and more pity as the opera unfolded.

She and Mr Troxell seemed to connect theatrically. He acted convincingly a broken man, a victim of injustice, perhaps channelling Florestan from Fidelio, but he also clung to his resentment and was certainly not an innocent victim. Mr Rhodes’ Escamillo completed the love triangle as a more aloof vertex, his pleasing, velvety voice making up for the conceitedness and violence of his character. Ms Car’s Micaëla brought warmth into this otherwise too-hot-or-too-cold love triangle. Perhaps it is more of a love pyramid, with Micaëla above in a third dimension, her only crime, to hope. She was not too mousy in a part that could easily get overlooked, differentiating her character from Carmen while holding her own by her courage and virtue rather than endearing innocence, quietness or shyness.

Guillaume Tourniaire and orchestra played precisely and cleanly. The faster tempi were very brisk without sounding rushed and Mr Tourniaire managed to make the transitions to the slower sections sound natural. He made the music sound seamless, as if he were coming upon the tunes for the first time, despite their familiarity; there is a risk that this music could sound like an album of familiar songs, but Mr Tourniaire avoided this. He showed sensitivity to this style of French romantic orchestration and is a generous conductor, very physical: at his curtain call he was visibly flushed and out of breath.

The chorus acted particularly well, not just filling in the background, but weaving in and out of the action as an even crowd, blurring foreground and background, give a sense of the outside world which is too big to really care in the end about the main characters’ problems. The children’s chorus also did well, singing with energy but never shrilly and playing naturally on the stage, making for very believable street urchins.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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