‘Who is Carmen. What is she?’ Apologies for butchering Shakespeare, but it’s a question any director of Bizet’s perennial favourite should ask. At opposite ends of the spectrum stand Barry Kosky’s take on the work currently furrowing brows at The Royal Opera, and John Bell’s on the other side of the world giving Sydney audiences what they want, albeit updated and relocated to Cuba. Bell isn’t the first director to do either, but what does uprooting the opera from its traditional surroundings actually add to the piece?
Bieito’s much-travelled version, set in the dying days of Franco’s dictatorship, added danger, risk and violence. Bell, and his designer Michael Scott-Mitchell (sets) and Teresa Negroponte (costumes) opt for a vibrant, teetering on the gaudy, representation of Havana life. This is fine itself, but why include a superfluous group of youthful break dancers, which adds nothing? The factory workers had more a whiff of Benidorm about them than cigarettes, and again, who were they?
These questions were never answered, nor were any of the on-stage complex relationships sufficiently explored, so we were left with something many admired for its visual élan, yet left us craving something more gritty, probing and exciting. A director who allows Carmen to flick her skirt incessantly is a director with little to say about one of opera’s most multi-faceted characters.
Rinat Shaham is an old hand in the title role, having performed it in most of the world’s most prestigious opera houses. She certainly knows how to milk the role, and was a mesmerising stage presence, but dramatically seemed unsure whether to play her as a vamp, siren, seductress or victim. Her singing was secure throughout and certainly packed a punch in her final confrontation with Don José.
Reports from the first night indicated Marcelo Puente was having vocal difficulties. With a voice more Italian than French in style and colour, at the second performance he certainly seemed ill at ease with Bizet’s vocal idiom. His phrasing was bumpy and short-breathed. Hopefully he regained his form before the end of the run.
Escamillo, saddled with one of the most famous tunes ever written, is a thankless role. Too high for most basses, and too low for most baritones, it is tricky to cast but at least Michael Honeyman had a brave stab at it and produced some of the most exciting singing of the evening.
Stacey Alleaume gave unalloyed pleasure as Micaela – she has a lyric voice with boundless potential, and the supporting cast was strong. Conducting from memory, Carlo Goldstein led a propulsive account of the score and was rewarded with sumptuous playing from the orchestra, and full-blooded singing from the chorus.
Natalie Aroyan (Micaela), Otar Jorjikia (Don José), Sian Pendry (Carmen) and Tahu Matheson (conductor) appear in the remaining performances.