Thursday, May 4, 2017

Opera Australia's dazzling and dramatic new Carmen opens in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun Melbourne 5th May and in print 9th May 2017.

In Opera Australia’s new production of Carmen, esteemed director John Bell seems acutely aware of both enticing newcomers to opera as well as giving regulars justification to see Georges Bizet’s popular work yet again. And see it you should. Bell draws out and magnifies the contrasts and tensions of the story marvellously and bends them to their limits with dazzling and dramatic effect.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen and the Opera Australia Chorus
The perennial buzz of sexual attraction and ugliness of sexual violence with the curse of jealousy at the core, in Bell’s depiction, makes a powerful and confronting lesson — none more so than a final scene that is disturbingly graphic and brings you to thoughts of today’s news of domestic violence.

Under the creative team of Michael Scott-Mitchell (set), Teresa Negroponte (costumes) and Trent Suidgeest (lighting), a cooling breath of Broadway flashes over Bizet’s Seville. Here, it’s a Cuban-inspired retro-contemporary, dilapidated and seedy world contrasting with costumed fluorescent colour and military camouflage, assisted by Kelley Abbey’s energetic choreography for skilful juvenile street dancers and cavorting couples.

You have to stretch your imagination to accommodate librettist’s Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s Seville of 1820 but the passions of extremes are perfectly preserved, in no small part due to a superbly sung opening night, conductor Brian Castles-Onion expert handling of the score’s pulse and Orchestra Victoria on top form.

Two international leads gifted their credentials in truckloads. In complete control of her performance as Carmen, mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham seduced with the grit and intensity of the persona she has perfected in over 40 productions worldwide. Shaham effortlessly oozes with sexual strength and exposes Carmen’s cracks of vulnerability in her flirtatious road for freedom with a voice of endless richness and a devastating, dark lower range full of adamancy and soul.

Coming with a hugely resonant, noble and fierce tenor, Dymtro Popov’s masterfully calibrated performance as the unhinged Don José sets up the tragedy compellingly alongside Shaham’s determined Carmen as he mirrors the mind in vocal and dramatic conviction.

Dmytro Popov as Don José and Rinat Shaham as Carmen
The satin-suited bullfighter Escamillo — the kind of guy who steals a kiss then gives it to another — came with distinctive flair from a robust-voiced Shane Lowrencev who gladly did a sterling job of the famous Toreador Song.

Soprano Stacey Alleaume wasn’t far away from a standing ovation after her innocent but brave-hearted Micaëla pulled at the heartstrings with her sweet, angelic beauty of voice.

Smaller roles were handled with aplomb with Carmen’s shallow, beauty-conscious companions Frasquita (Jane Ede) and Mercédès (Sian Pendry) especially shining in style with Adrian Tamburini’s brutish Zuniga leading his forces with solidly grounded bass. And the Opera Australia chorus, with 12 clarion scallywags, fired up magnificently as a chorus of suspect citizens for a splendid bullfighters’ welcome.

At the heart of it all, nothing feels lost in Bizet’s enduring work. Coming with strong vocal, musical and dramatic commitment, the gains made in Opera Australia’s new production should last as long as the blaze of colour in its makeup.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until May 26
Rating: four stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

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