John Bell’s Havana colours bring extra delight To Carmen: an opera review by Victor Grynberg

January 14, 2020 by Victor Grynberg
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George Bizet died tragically at only 37 years of age, after 33 mixed-reviewed performances of his Spanish-themed opera Carmen.

The Opera Australia Chorus performs alongside the Children’s Chorus in Carmen at the Sydney Opera House.  Photo Credit: Keith Saunders

He had no idea that this masterpiece would become one of the two most popular works in all of opera. La Boheme, also now playing at the Sydney Opera House, is its rival.

There have been countless productions of this opera, mostly in the original scenario of a tobacco factory in Seville a city that has fascinated opera composers since forever, with over 100 operas set in that beautiful, colourful place.

But four years ago, legendary Australian actor and director John Bell decided to restage Carmen in place and time.

From Spain in 1850s to Havana, Cuba in more recent times.

An appropriate choice as the number one hit of the many is the exceedingly beautiful and haunting “Habanera”. A song of Havana.

Veronica Simeoni as Carmen, Roberto Aronica as Don Jose and Claudia Pavone as Micaela in Opera Australia’s production of Carmen at the Sydney Opera House. Photo Credit: Keith Saunders

This gave him the opportunity to increase enormously the amount of colour in the costuming and this is tremendously effective, both with the excellent adult chorus and dancers and the brilliant troupe of youthful 12-14-year-old boys. Twelve of them were cast for their general singing and dancing and especially the outstanding four specialty dancers. Compared to a generation or two ago, it is the quality of support artists which has lifted enormously in their standard. We never had such well-performing choruses and certainly nothing that came near the world-class boys’ group.

The choreographer Kelley Abbey, who did the 2106 original version of this production has given us an extremely energetic and sparkling set. With the freedom, she brings to this work as she’s always done in the wonderful work previously displayed on screen and musicals. Bravo.

All this adds to an exciting production and one that will be remembered for a long time.

Constantine Costa, responsible for this marvellous revival direction will also be doing the La Traviata revival, keenly awaited for March this year as the Handa Opera on the Harbour. A strong hand was evident.

Italian mezzo Veronica Simeoni is the first of a trio of Carmens who will be performing the role till season’s end in late March.  Israeli Rinat Shaham set the OA standard for the fiery Gypsy and though Ms Simeoni warms in her singing she does not quite meet Ms Shaham’s level.

Another Italian, Robert Aronica plays the deserting Corporal Don Jose. He certainly is convincing as a brutal person, perhaps the first completely bald Don Jose I’ve ever seen. This does age him from previous characterisations of this role but his vocal strength and fierceness make him totally credible.

Victor Grynberg

For me, the star of the night was our next Italian soprano Claudia Pavone, as Micaela the original love of Don Jose. Her voice was just beautiful as she pleads with Don Jose to return to his ailing mother.

A toreador with a difference, city clothes and arriving on a truck, was Lukasc Golinski as Escamillo. Plenty of male hubris on display, and a pleasant voice.

Strongly supporting this team was Anthony Mackey and Alexander Hargreaves as the two lead smugglers, Fijian Australian Sitiveni Talei as a military leader together with Sharon Zhai and Agnes Sarkis, Carmen’s closest girlfriends.

The music finally is the most important of the many aspects that bring a grand opera together. Of course, Bizet’s score is fantastic, but it takes a great orchestra to do justice to this score, and in particular the overture, so well- known to so many. We are fortunate to have a wonderful group of musicians in the Opera Australia Orchestra. Leading them was Romanian – American conductor Christian Badea, already a  favourite of local audiences, whose skilled conducting enhanced the whole production.

An evening of grand opera greatly enjoyed by the full house who rose almost as one to give a standing ovation to the whole troupe.

4 ½ stars

Carmen

Joan Sutherland Theatre

Sydney Opera House

January 11 2020

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