Thursday, July 7, 2016

Compromised concoction in Opera Australia's latest 'Cuban' Carmen

In Opera Australia's new production of Bizet's last opera Carmen from acclaimed director John Bell, Act IV's final tragic scene is riveting and speaks of everything the love-plagued Carmen and Don José are fatally destined for. Under the cool blue-green light of evening in a desolate town square, mezzo soprano Clémentine Margaine and tenor Yonghoon Lee are at their finest in both voice and acting as the drama boils over. Getting to this point, however, was tricky in this blazing colour of a place Bell makes us believe is "something like Havana" - Escamillo's invitation to the bullfight in Seville would otherwise be impossible for his fans to attend.

Act IV, Opera Australia's new production of Carmen
In this 'Cuban' retro-contemporary setting under apparent military rule, Michael Scott-Mitchell's dilapidated and grungy three-sided set borders a barren square incorporating a sunken-stepped obliquely shaped foreground area. The 19th century detailed facades look fitting enough even though they're cut-off without adornment at the top, but Teresa Negroponte's boldly coloured costumes, as memorably eye-catching as they are, create discord between what the story tells us and who these people are in this sleazy and corrupt quarter. The factory girls look more dressed for cocktails at the beach than ready for work and the Panama-hatted, satin-suited smugglers and sequence-costumed gypsies stand out like flamboyant film stars. As it turns out, the contraband is a mix of high-end fashion and liquor as well as expected arms.

Apart from a few prop changes, the set remains constant for the entire four acts. A VW Kombi van is smartly driven into the square for Act II as a mobile Lillas Pastia outdoor cafe but what is a public place creates the hiccup a with Zuniga knocking to enter. For Act III, industrial lighting drops to suggest the square is now the inside of a warehouse with more success. Trent Suidgeest's lighting manages to create the suggested transitions.

Spanish/Cuban flare fires up energetically in colour and hip-swinging choreography by Kelley Abbey which pushes the entertainment value to highs. The boys chorus are in fine voice as they cheekily take ownership of the streets and they sure can steal the moment with acrobatic street dancing.

But the concoction needs stronger direction. When the camouflage-uniformed riot troops arrive with shields to break up the fighting girls it appears clumsy, the crowd of onlookers for Act IV's parade are bundled up in the centre and almost all the soloist work is restricted to the fore stage. Much more is wanting in this fiesta-like staging and the vocal output wasn't always smooth either.

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and Yonghoon Lee as Don José 
What might be expected of Carmen's  eagerness to flaunt with authority and flirt with the men comes across more frighteningly than seductively in Margaine's opening Habanera with an uneasy look of choreographed steps and overly jerky movements. Margaine's distinctive, wonderfully rich-centred and fleshy instrument also suffered the same push and pull of phrasing with heavy gasps. It is not until the end of Act II when Don José intends to retreat from Carmen that Margaine suddenly turns everything around, as if liberated from the flirtatious demands. In this tense and dangerous extended duet with Lee, the voice began to balance, the top radiated and an independent, genuinely passionate heart took over. In the end, Margaine acts out a woman fighting for the freedom to be what she wants while dying from the inside in a poignant and arresting performance.

Lee wasn't without early troubles either but quickly found much-needed balance between orchestra and stage by turning down the bolting power to present an impressive and intriguing Don José. Full of volatility, strength and exhibiting stunning volume contractions to ignite a fluttering pianissimo, Lee stealthily intoxicates as a performer. At times he is quietly distant while harbouring a sense of frustration, later he convincingly portrays the jealous lover and then finally makes a crushing plea for Carmen to love him with all the looks of a beggar. I had no doubt that Don José's dying mother had in fact died (though the story doesn't tell us so) and the final blow had been dealt to a man gone completely off the rails.

Yonghoon Lee as Don José and Natalie Aroyan as Micaëla
As the bullfighter celebrity Escamillo, baritone Michael Honeyman is all dandy-like and satin-suited and sings the audience-favourite Toreador Song with dignified robustness and well-paced tempo but there is a lack of virility in his interpretation of the role.

Natalie Aroyan is the quiet achiever of the night, giving a consistently assured performance as the good, brave-hearted Micaëla. Pure in tone with a sweet legato and gleaming at the top, Aroyan marks her music with touching ecclesiastical grace and gives Micaëla a somewhat heroine charm in Act III's "C'est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire" as she brings news to Don José of his mother's decline.

Act II's delightful quintet, "Nous avons en tête une affaire!", brings together, with Carmen, the wrong-side-of-the-law characters Dancairo (Luke Gabbedy), Remendado (Kanen Breen), Frasquita (Jane Ede) and Mercédès (Margaret Trubiano) in a capable line up but not reaching the capabilities these excellent artists can show. Adrian Tamburini's rugged Zuniga is fortified splendidly with machismo-voiced bass but Christopher Hillier's smallish role as Morales was sung rawly. The Opera Australia Chorus (ladies in particular) provided luscious and thrusting vocal and costumed colour where direction lacked.

Margaret Trubiano, Michael Honeyman and Jane Ede
In the pit, conductor Andrea Molino brought out a deeply sensuous side to Bizet's score while showing great sensitivity with the stage, the tempi perfectly assisting to elevate the drama. Only a tad more percussive oomph felt needed at times but nothing was lost in this night of many a popular tune where the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra excelled.

Bizet never lived to see the success of Carmen but a lifetime of colour will keep this Carmen going for a while to satisfy new audiences. Unless the direction is tightened however, for the most part, they are missing out on Carmen's spellbinding potential. Margaine, Lee, Aroyan and Honeyman have come to the end of there season in this first casting. Milijana Nikolic, Brandon Javanovich, Shane Lowrencev and Stacey Alleaume have the task ahead.

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 12th August

Production Photographs: Keith Saunders

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