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.