Cher Public

Castanets of thousands

Outdoor arena opera always seems faintly ridiculous. Singers belting into a microphone that’s attached to their face is more appropriate for a U2 concert than a staged opera. Intimacy is almost impossible under such circumstances. Opera Australia’s Carmen is no exception—Gale Edwardsstaging is more appropriate for Broadway. The set is a giant, neon-lit bull-ring, with a huge, neon-lit “CARMEN” sign far upstage.

The opera has been updated to the post-Franco era. Two cranes deposit a huge tank and truck in the town square. The costumes for the gypsies, cigarette girls, smugglers, and soldiers are colorful, tacky and over-the-top. The dance numbers remind one of Busby Berkeley. At one point it looks like an Olympics opening ceremony with everyone onstage carrying colorful multi-national flags and dressed in… uh, who the hell cares? It’s clear that this is a production designed to dazzle with glitz and glamour, not to please serious opera enthusiasts.  

Those who want their Carmens to be in the Opera Comique style will be disappointed as well—it’s the usual sung recitatives, and there’s not a single French singer in the cast.

Yet the whole entire video works for one simple reason: from start to finish, it is beautifully sung and acted, without a single false note from anyone in the cast. Rinat Shaham in the title role must be singled out for praise—her mezzo-soprano is a beautiful column of sound from top to bottom, and she can color her voice to seem alternately seductive, kittenish, ominous, desperate, and defiant. She’s not a conventional beauty but she’s also something most Carmens are not—genuinely sexy. An A+ performance from Shaham and worth the price of the video alone.

Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov (Don José) has a voice that’s a bit too lyrical for the more declamatory passages (the finale of Act Three is one example). No matter. He’s outstanding. He doesn’t push or belt his voice—he sings his heart out to Carmen, and his increasing desperation is heart-rending. The Flower Song’s climactic B-flat he sings sung softly. Shaham and Popov’s chemistry and wonderful singing make Bizet’s drama front and center despite the circus-like surroundings.

The rest of the cast is respectable without being spectacular. Andrew Jones (Escamillo) is dressed like Michael Jackson and sings his Toreador aria without making much of an impression. But does anyone ever truly make an impression as Escamillo? The part is opera’s ultimate “one and done” act. He does get deposited onto the stage in a huge crane for his fight in the last act. Nicole Car as Micaëla is pleasing and lyrical but overwhelmed by the tour-de-force performance of Shaham. Brian Castles-Onion leads an energetic, spirited performance from the pit.

Those with more rarefied tastes might take a look at the neon signs and the huge cranes and take a pass on this Carmen. They would be making a mistake, for Rinat Shaham and Dmytro Popov sing their hearts out and make this video well worth owning.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    This remains one of my favorite Carmens

    • Tory Adore

      good lord- what’s wrong with that woman? She looks and sounds really drunk and at the very end of her vocal worth.

    • I can’t get enough of 7:21, very dramatic :P

  • Krunoslav

    “But does anyone ever truly make an impression as Escamillo?”

    Only two great ones i ever heard live:
    José van Dam
    Samuel Ramey

    Two who were pretty damn good:
    Robert Hale
    Kyle Ketelsen

    And great on recordings:
    Robert Massard

  • grimoaldo

    “But does anyone ever truly make an impression as Escamillo?”

    Many years ago, and I mean many years ago, like 1978 or something (I was of course a mere babe in arms at the time) I saw a chap called Geoffrey Chard at ENO as Escamillo, yes, he made an true impression, he was perfect in fact in an awesome production that I saw over and over and over with Katherine Pring as Carmen and Valerie Masterson / Anne Evans/ Linda Esther Gray as Micaela (how mind-blowing it is just to type those names now and think I saw those three in that part once a week for the equivalent of $2.50 all those years ago) and I have not seen “Carmen”live since then, I have had no desire to, what’s the point, that “Carmen”-ed me out for life, nothing could possibly be as good, I would rather live with my memories.
    The other opera that happened to me with was “Manon”, I must have seen it fifteen times or more with Masterson and John Brecknock at ENO around the same time, and never since, don’t want to, why disturb your memories of absolute perfection?
    “it’s the usual sung recitatives”
    Is it really still “usual” to use the Guiraud recits? That production way back when I am talking about did not, it seems a very retro thing to do to me.
    Thank you for the nice review Ivy!

    • Thanks grim! The Giuraud recits are still pretty standard for “international” casts.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Why disturb your memories? Good question, yet we tend to go back to these same operas anyway. Having seen the SFO Ring, with Stemme in her prime, why did I go see the Seattle Ring? Because maybe it would be different, and yet wonderful all over again? And it was. In a few years I intend to see someone else’s Ring, and for the same reason. These each are unique viewing/listening experiences.

  • DharmaBray

    This was Sydney’s second Opera on the Harbour (after 2012’s La Traviata which was also released on DVD and reviewed on Parterre). In 2014 we get Madama Butterfly in a production from La Fura dels Baus. Not sure how that’s going to work on a floating stage geared for spectacle, and where they will insert the obligatory fireworks… I wish they had gotten someone to recreate Ken Russell’s production that ended with the atomic bomb going off in Nagasaki… cue tremendous fireworks…

  • mb

    I can understand the motive for all involved to stage and to visit these “Opera on the Harbour” events; I don’t understand why a production with such a horrible stage design should be committed to DVD.

    • Well in this case I’m grateful it was preserved because it did capture two great performances from the leads.

  • Poison Ivy -- off-topic, I know, but I just finished reading “The Girl Who Loved Camellias” on your recommendation, and enjoyed it very much (I read Kavanagh’s Nureyev bio front to back twice in a row).

    Am I wrong, or is this a major erratum:

    Marie also embodied the paradox of the sylph. Since Gautier’s 1832 ballet La Sylphide, a romantic masterpiece, this airy creature had become a contemporary icon…

    Although he devised the story line for Giselle, I wasn’t aware that he had any involvement in La Sylphide -- is this true?


    • That is a major error. The original La Sylphide was designed and choreographed by Filipo Taglioni and there was no involvement by Gaultier. Great catch!