Thursday, March 21, 2013

Carmen as spectacle

This video shows Rinat Shaham from the OperaAustralia mainstage poduction, a production full of "authentic" Spanish flavours, with flamenco dancing and period touches. Last night's rehearsal I attended showcased the same marvellous singer as Carmen, but much of the rest was very different.

First of all, I have to say, beforehand, I was wondering was it fair to even review a dress rehearsal, even if it was the last before opening night. Well, by the time of interval, I had no doubt it was appropriate. The only things I had found to complain about was some of the audio levels as they worked to adjust the sound levels for various singers, and some curiously non-choral sounding chorus work, which sounded like only some singers' microphones were working. That appeared to be less noticeable by the end, so it may have been just some were not turned on, or similar. Minor teething pains tho, for what was a great performance.

So, as you can see, great seats for a big show.  And, yes, there was lots of colour and movement. The full chorus of Opera Australia, a large group of dancers, and supernumeries besides. And yes, the Carmen at the back of the set is backwards, precisely to declare to the outside world what is going on. We in the audience all know its Carmen. You can probably make out some of the outline of the bull that gets lit up in the last act. What is not so obvious is the fact that the back of the stage is effectively a scaffolding, that is used to good effect at times, especially at the bullfight, as people crowd it, looking into the (unseen) arena that is beyond. Also, the 2 cranes on either side that are used to fly in several set pieces, (a tank, a truck, a shipping container, and even, a cast member)

There are numerous places at the back of the stage to exit, and there is a large ramp that descends from the centre of backstage at various times, to represent the entry to the cigarette factory, and the entrance to the bullfight arena. Not to mention, of course, you can also enter and exit via the walkway that extends to the front on either side. The orchestra are located under the stage, and are not seen until the end, when they come up for air, err, come up for their bows.

So, Gale Edwards has put together a production that plays to a non opera experienced crowd. There is (as mentioned) lots of colour and movement, and the story is played out with broad strokes, going for a literal telling, even if the costuming and staging make it clear we are talking Carmen set in the 1950's, not the 1830 of the novella by Merimée. Working with the designers Brian Thompson and Julie Lynch, an image of Spain has been created, albeit one that is definitely viewed through French eyes, as both Bizet's music and the original French novella were.

And what glorious music it is. The habanera, the seguidilla, the flower song, the smuggler's quintet, the card trio, the toreador's song, Michaela's aria, the grand chorus scene that opens the final act. This is an opera that everyone knows the big numbers from, and they were all delivered brilliantly. Under Brian Castles-Onion, the music was well served with that Gallic-Spanish mix we all know so well. Yes, some of the first act lacked some cohesiveness in a few spots, not helped by the mic issues mentioned before, but that was cleaned up before the next act.

 And the singers you say? Well, funny you should mention that. As per the video above, we had the stunning Carmen specialist Rinat Shaham in the lead. As expected, her earthy toned mezzo was used to great expressive effect, giving a performance that was by turns devil may care, vengeful, spiteful, coy, seductive, all those things that make a great Carmen. Yes, some of the tonal variations may have been lost, and some of the subtleties of her performance, but,  singing mic'd also gave her a lot more freedom of expression, allowing a broader range to be painted, rather than a more focused one.

As her lover Don Jose, Dmytro Popov brought a glorious tenor voice to the role. To be honest, I am not sure this is a voice that is ready to sing Don Jose in a normal production, but amplified, without having to force his voice over the orchestra, he brought a beautiful sweet tone to the role. Normally a role sung by dramatic tenors, he made a good case for a more lyrical voice to sing the role. He certainly did not lack dramatically, but this was a voice for melting hearts, not a voice to make you fear.  Having said that, there was no doubting the passion he sang of, or his desperation as he realised Carmen was never his.

Here he is singing Che gelida manina from La Boheme. Its a glorious voice, but not what you would expect for Don Jose, but, strangely, it worked.

As Michaela, we had the lovely Nicole Carr, bringing her lyric goodness and determination to the role. I also have to give her full points for singing her big act 3 aria, perched high in the air. I would not have felt comfortable up there, let alone sing one of the bigger arias in my repertoire on my knees, while up there. But, she did, and did it convincingly. She brought that moment of calm in the storm of emotions convincingly, our one touch of normality.

And that leaves Escamillo, sung by Andrew Jones, to bring up the rear of the big four leads. This role forever will be associated with Robert Merril for me, so needless to say, it is hard to find a singer who can do it justice today to my ears. That said, he was not bad, just its hard to find a Robert Merril! Escamillo arrived via a car driven to the stage front, with full movie star treatment. It really captured the feel of the adored toreador, bringing it to life in a way the audience can relate. It was both effective and entertaining.

Of course, there were also the other four gypsies who all sang their fiercely difficult quintet with Carmen, tossing out the masses of words as if they were the easiest thing in the world, not a nightmare of timing and precision. All four sang with great diction, bringing them to us as larger than life figures, used to hiding in shadows.

So, to sum up? A lavish night's entertainment, sung very well, and brought to life vividly. No, it won't change the world, but it might change the way some people think about opera. And for me, that sounds pretty fantastic!

 Rinat singing the Seguidilla in a production in Israel (with Neil Shicoff as Don Jose)

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