Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – Carmen

OA HSOH Carmen 2017 - photo by Prudence UptonDespite some unfortunate publicity at the beginning of the week which questioned the integrity of this revival, and uncooperative weather which resulted in this open-air production receiving only one full onstage run-through before the opening night performance, all was “right on the night”, and the first-night audience was rewarded with a thrilling performance that was a triumph for all concerned.

Carmen is the first of the Handa Operas on Sydney Harbour to be revived, and this meticulously prepared revival does full justice to a remarkable production. Conceived as spectacle on a grand scale, Gale Edwards brilliant concept and staging takes advantage of every opportunity provided by the magical location and Bizet’s thrilling score to inject movement, drama and excitement into the proceedings, without compromising any of the intimacy of the central drama between the headstrong gypsy, Carmen, and her smitten soldier, Don Jose.

In this she is blessed with a marvellous Carmen in stunning mezzo soprano, Jose Maria Lo Monaco, whose lustrous voice and exotic, passionate presence, captured the attention of the audience, as well as the handsome Don Jose, (Andeka Gorrotxategi) from the moment she set foot on the stage. Even in the scenes when these two are alone on Brian Thompson’s vast setting, they manage to remain the centre of attention, thanks in part to the remarkable lighting design by John Rayment, which keeps them firmly in focus, even when the stage is flooded with blues and reds, and a swirling mass of singers and dancers.

Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano shine as Carmen’s friends, Frasquita and Mercedes, as do Nicholas Jones and Christopher Hillier as their smuggler friends, Remendado and Dancairo. Adrian Tamburini again demonstrates his strong dramatic vocal and physical presence as the sinister Zuniga, while Luke Gabbedy was a dashing Escamillo and carried off his spectacular entrance with flair, raising the heat with his full-throated rendition of the famous Toreador Song.

Brian Thompson’s set design is a masterpiece of uncluttered simplicity. A circular stage flanked by ramps on either side, allows easy access for the huge team of singers and dancers who populate the crowd scenes. Towering red letters spelling out, in reverse, the name of the opera, mask three levels of scaffold platforms which the ensemble spectacularly inhabit at various points in the opera.

A great red neon-outlined bull signals the excitement of the bull-ring, with further spectacle added by the military tank, and large truck which are flown in suspended on huge cranes. Micaela, (Natalie Aroyan in superb voice) sings her most poignant aria suspended high in the air on top of a huge metal container.

Equally spectacular are Julie Lynch’s remarkable costumes in a cacophony of colours, ranging through glamorous black, white and yellow La Dolce Vita inspired costumes for the ensemble ladies to swirling black and red gypsy skirts for the female dancers.

Kelley Abbey has created a series of extraordinary dance sequences, which are superbly executed by the large dance team, among them, Amy Campbell, who provides a highlight performing a spectacular number in which her huge red silk skirt is manipulated by six male dancers to stunning effect.

Absolutely in his element with this opera, Brian Castles-Onion, conducts from beneath the stage, moving Bizet’s melody laden score along at a cracking pace, while Tony David Cray’s miraculous sound design insures that each glorious voice is heard to maximum effect.

Once again the excellent Opera Australia chorus rose to the occasion, and not even a passing shower, just as the cigarette girls emerged to complain about the heat on the factory floor, could dampen the excitement created by this remarkable production which captures perfectly the drama, passion and spectacle inherent in this opera.

The full magnitude of their achievement became fully apparent when the vast company of singers, dancers, orchestra and technical crew took to the stage for final bows, allowing the audience to appreciate the number of people necessary to bring this gigantic project to fruition.

In his program note, Dr Haruhisa Handa, chairman of the International Foundation for Arts and Culture, notes that the IFAC have extended the title sponsorship of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, which “will enable Opera Australia to continue to craft its unique brand of operatic spectacle”. Welcome news as Opera Australia continues to demonstrate their expertise in their staging of this unique world class event.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – Carmen
Fleet Steps – Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney
Season continues to 23 April 2017
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au

Image: Jane Ede as Frasquita, Sian Pendry as Carmen, Margaret Trubiano as Mercédès and the cast of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – Carmen 2017 – photo by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens OAM