By Bizet. Opera Australia. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Feb 10 - Mar 23, 2018

Critics savaged Carmen when it premiered in Paris in 1875.  Bizet was dead from a heart attack three months later, at just 36, and so never had an inkling he’d written the world’s most popular opera.

Discarding its traditional setting in Seville, director John Bell turns to Havana, with Michael Scott-Mitchell’s evocatively detailed classic square, streaked with decay and rusting roller doors. It shifts between carousing public square to smuggler’s warehouse, under Trent Suidgeest’s dramatic lighting.  

And Teresa Negroponte parades a riot of colour-mad Cuban costumes almost too brilliant to watch.

This is a showman’s Carmen, the poverty of its gypsies and petty crims romanticised into a Mardi Gras of excess.  But it’s sure compelling.  Choreographer Kelly Abbey has far more to do than in most operas and her bouncing street savvy kids are a delight.

Bell at times seems to have too many dancers, city-folk, army units and smugglers on stage to handle, but he excels in focused psychologically-driven storytelling.

In this machismo world of bullfighters and soldiers, Marcelo Puente is powerfully voiced but also appealingly vulnerable as Colonel Don Jose, fighting at first to resist Carmen and instead honour his dying mother.  Pursuing him with Mum’s wishes, is his childhood sweetheart, Miceala, an innocent counter-Carmen beautifully sung by Stacey Alleaume.  

Rinat Shaham delivers a more restrained Carmen, passionate vocally if not physically, more truly ordinary gypsy than quicksilver diva.

Michael Honeyman never quite rises to the machismo heights required of the bullfighter,  Escamillo, who seemingly steals away Carmen’s heart and leaves Don Jose bereft.

Add Bizet’s glorious score, conducted by Carlo Golstein, to this design extravaganza, and this is Carmen both exciting and often tender.

Martin Portus

Photographer: Prudence Upton

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