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Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour 2013: Carmen

Nevermind the sky: Handa's second foray is fireworks from start to finish

Photograph: James Morgan

Lyndon Terracini wanted to make opera a populist form again – and he has abundantly succeeded with the Handa Opera On The Harbour venture. The recipe is simple but brilliant: take one stunning outdoor location with a world-class view, add spectacular, over-the-top set design, razzle-dazzle costumes, dance routines and acrobatics; into this mix, drop one high-drama opera classic, and a couple of international star leads. Finish with a dash of fireworks, and serve in possibly the best, balmy summer Sydney has to offer.

The result is the perfect potion – the glitzy visuals and hyperactive energy of a Broadway musical mixed with world-class opera. Even better, the themed food and drinks menu, consumed while overlooking the harbour as dusk falls, renders your purchase a bona fide experience, and worth the hefty price.

Following on from last summer’s successful production of La Traviata at the Lady Macquarie’s Chair venue, Opera Australia invited director Gale Edwards (who most recently took on Salome for the company) to give the razzle-dazzle treatment to Georges Bizet’s fiery melodrama Carmen, set in the sizzling heat of Spain, and sung in French. Alternating the lead role are two show-stopping women – mezzo-sopranos Rinat Shaham and Milijana Nikolic. Shaham dominates the role internationally, but Nikolic, who played the Saturday following opening night, was a marvelously louche, sensuous Carmen. Her singing leans right back on the beat of the music – insolent, indomitable.

Veteran production designer Brian Thomsen (most famous for designing Jim Sharman’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, but also many New Year’s Eve displays, and more recently Kylie’s Goddess Mardi Gras float) thinks suitably ‘big’ for the location, borrowing elements from La Boheme like the massive illuminated signage against the skyline, which doubles as a scaffolded backdrop for the struggle between Carmen and the gypsies and her unlucky lover Don José and the his fellow army officers.

Costumes-wise, the decision to set the action in Franco-era Spain pays fashion dividends, from the electric black-and-yellow day dresses of the candy-girls at the bull arena to the creamy, dreamy house-dresses of the factory girls, the vibrant red-slashed green military uniforms – and of course Carmen’s suite of blood-red dresses.

A shout-out goes out to Edwards and choreographer Kelley Abbey (So You Think You Can Dance) for their integration of choreography and dance sequences, from casual acrobatics to Carmen’s famed seguidilla, the stunning paso doble set-piece, and sparkling flamenco numbers. It’s just one facet of a production that feels thoroughly conceptualised from start to finish.

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