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Carmen: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour 2017

  • Theatre
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Opera Australia's 5-star 2013 production is returning to the Harbour in 2017

The first thing you need to know about Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is that it’s completely OTT. The annual outdoor opera staging at Mrs Macquarie’s Point – with the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge standing watch in the background, the sound of waves lapping underneath the set – is pure Sydney spectacle. And that’s before you factor in Carmen’s second-act fireworks, or the tanks, shipping containers and performers placed on set by construction cranes.

Gale Edwards’ Carmen, returning this year after a successful season in 2013, goes a long way towards justifying this level of extreme art. Set in the Spanish Civil War era, it’s a triumph of design. Brian Thomson’s set is luxurious with reds, backdropped with Carmen’s name in lights and the silhouette of a bull. John Rayment’s lighting works closely with Thomson’s design, with a warm palette including a striking yellow and green, to direct audience focus across the giant outdoor stage. The shapes and shadows from Rayment’s lights create believable intimacy on the oversize stage, something other operas on the harbour have struggled with. 

Julie Lynch’s costumes are brighter pops on that established colour scheme, with bold patterns and silhouettes. Nothing about the design, on any level, is boring – and it’s all cohesive enough to not feel overwhelming.

Within the boundaries of the libretto (the tale of a seductress who turns the head of a soldier, with deadly results) Edwards works to give both Carmen (sung here by Italian mezzo soprano Josè Maria Lo Monaco) and her soldier Don José (Spanish tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi) a dash of reality. She also wants us to feel that they are equals – and so frames them accordingly, by lights and the ensemble. When Carmen falls for toreador Escamillo (Luke Gabbedy) over Don Jose, this production doesn’t vilify her; she keeps her head high, and her independence is clear in her body language.

This production is seductive in a way that feels rough-hewn and therefore organic. Kelley Abbey’s choreography captures the dynamic, dramatic movement of Bizet’s score with flamenco motifs and jazz technique, and it frequently feels both individualised and self-affirming (Frasquita and Mercedes, Carmen’s Romani friends, dance with confidence, daring to take up space and live loudly; performers Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano are an immediately likeable pair). Carmen moves differently to everyone else, circling men and sauntering through crowds, with irresistible swagger.

It’s packed with captivating performances. Gorrotxategi’s Don José sings with all the hopefulness and gravity of a fallen angel and Lo Monaco’s Carmen is reckless, self-assured and rebellious. Natalie Aroyan’s Micaela – the innocent soprano to Carmen’s temptress, a hometown friend of Don José’s – is in stunning voice, even when singing her signature aria from the top of a shipping container. 

A sprinkle of misty rain wasn’t the only threat to the success of opening night. After it was revealed that Edwards, Thomson, and Lynch were not invited to participate in the remount of this production, the trio released a statement claiming they could no longer “guarantee the work’s integrity”.  Opera Australia responded with assurances that Carmen would be “as true to its original format” as possible. 

Reviewing footage of the 2013 season of Carmen reveals that the revival features some significant changes in the final scene – changes that arguably contradict Edwards’ vision, particularly in removing a sense of agency from Carmen as she faces her inevitable death. In the 2013 version, Carmen and Don José circle each other, mirroring Escamillo’s simultaneous offstage bullfight. She stands her ground even as Don José slashes her throat. In the 2017 remount, he grabs her in an embrace, stabbing her in the stomach – and then holds her body, overcome with grief. This new ending grants Don José a remorse and audience sympathy that Edwards denied him: by associating Carmen’s death with the slaughter of a bull (further emphasised by a final tableaux that shows a triumphant Escamillio standing above the bull he has just bested offstage, also missing this time around), she was emphasising the act as a show of masculine brutality. In this new version of the scene, it reads more like an ‘understandable’ crime of passion.

It’s understandable that Opera Australia would want to remount this Carmen – it’s irrepressibly modern and eminently watchable. But it can be uncomfortable; it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re watching an unauthorised product.

Read our guide to doing HOSH like a boss.

Written by
Cassie Tongue


Opening hours:
Tue-Sun 7.30pm
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