Head to Havana in John Bell's new production of Bizet's fiery melodrama, for Opera Australia
When John Bell retired from the Shakespeare company that bore his name in 2015, people may have assumed he would withdraw from public life altogether, but thankfully it wasn’t to be. He has found a new career over at Opera Australia – he previously directed a magnificent Tosca that fully exploited an updated period setting, enhancing and refocusing the plot. He has attempted something similar with this new production of George Bizet’s Carmen, relocating and updating it to modern Cuba. This time, sadly, the result is almost the opposite; most of the design decisions are overstuffed and importunate, and serve only to undermine or cut against the central drama.
Carmen will never go away, because it has some of the greatest and most accessible music in opera, and it tells a tale of sex and obsession that can feel ripped from yesterday’s headlines: woman with a history of tempestuous relationships is killed by her former lover because he can’t handle the idea of her being with another man. And yet, like all great art, it manages to reach beyond the tawdry and the one dimensional; Carmen herself is such a life-force, her sexuality and her desire for freedom create such a perfect storm of female power in a world of rigid masculinity, that her death comes to seem like a glorious and permanent rupture in the social fabric.
Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham is magnificent in the role. She may not have a glass-shattering top range but her earthy lower register is where she locates her power, and it drives and electrifies her performance. This is a Carmen almost offhandedly sexual, as if she’d just as rather change a carburettor as fuck a man. Her determination to march proudly into the landscape of her mortality gives her a strange authority over her own destruction. The men pale under this blazing, dark-haired comet.
As a result, Dmytro Popov initially seems rather wet as Don José, the seesawing other half of this star-crossed couple. There is little evidence of the spark that lights this doomed affair, but Popov grows in the role, adding layers of intensity and bitterness with every appearance. His final scenes – all dejected fatality and poisonous will – manage to reach that sacred space the tragedy requires, and his singing is consistently lovely. Jane Ede and Sian Pendry are perfect as Carmen’s molls, and Stacey Alleaume is a knockout as the rustic ingenue, Micaëla. Adrian Tamburini makes such an impression as Zuniga that it’s hard to fathom why he wasn’t given a larger role.
The biggest disappointment is Shane Lowrencev as the toreador Escamillo. It isn’t so much his singing, although his iconic number is hesitant and ineffectual; it’s that he is so badly cast, so gangly and awkward in a role that by definition needs to be agile and sensual. It means the love triangle is incapable of producing sound. Bell is quite expert at directing intimate groupings, so it is hard to avoid the impression that Melbourne is witnessing a pale facsimile of the original Sydney season.
Not that all the blame can be hauled onto the revival director, Roger Press. Many of Bell’s fundamental decisions are flawed. The primary one is the play’s transportation to Cuba. Given that the text specifically references Granada and Seville, it needs a damn good reason to upend this, but Bell gives us none. His “modern Cuba” is a gaudy simulacrum, full of piñata horses and badly-designed mardi-gras floats. Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are out of control: in key scenes it looks like a chorus line of circus clowns threw up all over the stage. Aesthetically the only thing the production has going for it is Michael Scott Mitchell’s stunning sets; they manage to suggest Cuba without discounting Seville, and are the closest thing to subtlety and nuance in the entire production.
This Carmen is so gaudy and insistent it often feels like a comedy, but it’s saved in large part by the female singers and a faint echo of a better production lying in the wings. It may reach some tragic heights, but this is mainly due to the music and a beautifully committed performance by Shaham. Bell was quite fond of placing his Shakespeare productions in unexpected settings, for better or worse. This time it is for worse, but it doesn’t mean he won’t produce a better, possibly extraordinary, production for this company in the near future. In the meantime, it’s a production best experienced with your eyes shut.