Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875)
Carmen - opera in four acts (1875)
Carmen - Rihat Shaham (mezzo); Don José - Dmytro Popov (tenor); Micaëla - Nicole Car (soprano); Escamillo - Andrew Jones (bass-baritone); Frasquita - Ariya Sawadivong (soprano); Mercédès - Tania Ferris (mezzo); Moralès - Samuel Dundas (baritone); Zuniga - Adrian Tamburini (bass); Le Dancaïre - Luke Gabbedy (baritone); Le Remendado - Sam Roberts-Smith (tenor)
Handa Opera, at Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney Harbour, Australia
Opera Australia Chorus
Australia Opera and Ballet Orchestra/Brian Castles-Onion
Director: Gale Edwards; Set Designer: Brian Thomson; Costume Designer: Julie Lynch; Choreographer: Kelley Abbey
Video Director: Cameron Kirkpatrick
rec. March 2013
Picture format: 1080i60 HD 16:9. All regions.
NTSC / Colour / 16:9 (filmed in High Definition); Sound formats: PCM Stereo DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: French (original language), English, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean
Booklet synopsis in English, German, French. Full track-listing
ABC CLASSICS DVD 076 2939 [141:00]

As I noted in my review of the recording of Handa Opera’s 2015 performance of Aida at Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney Harbour, the location is spectacular. Location was all when Verdi had set the original to meet the stipulated criteria determined by the Egyptologist Auguste Mariette acting on the strict instructions of the Khedive of Egypt. However, the modernistic set and perverse costume policy were considerable downsides allied with inadequacies among the soloists (review). There were no such limitations with this 2013 staging of Carmen at the same open-air venue. The introductory opening (CH 1), to orchestral music from the opera, gives prominence to the view over Sydney Harbour towards the lit Harbour Bridge and the Sails of the renowned Opera House. We are also treated to a brief look at the tiered rows of the three thousand or so audience members. The setting is a curved bullring-shaped stage over the water, looking towards a backdrop of scaffolding carrying the reverse side of the title Carmen. The overture itself (CH.2) is itself visually spectacular. There's a flown lorry and a tank making a setting updated to a nineteen-fifties period staging. It's Franco’s Spain I guess, a view confirmed by the costumes. In act four, the bullring venue is highlighted by a large outline figure, in lights, of a toro (CH. 44). Each entr’acte is accompanied by spectacular Spanish style dancing by a large and appropriately costumed group. Castles-Onion’s tempi for the final act are at foot tapping speed (CHs. 42-44). This is followed by a splendid integrated firework display (CH. 45).

The visuals are magnificent, the staging, costumes and direction fitting the music. How about the singing and acting of the soloists? As Carmen, Israeli Rihat Shaham, voluptuous of voice and figure, can really act the vamp. It's what portrayal of the role demands. Don José is putty in her hands. Needless to state, both Carmen’s Habañera (CH.7) and Seguidilla (CH.12) are sung with smouldering seduction in every vocal nuance. As José, Dmytro Popov is a little under-powered whilst exhibiting both good acting ability and vocal sensitivity throughout and particularly in the flower song (CH.23). As Micaëla Nicole Carr sings well and creates a suitably shy yet gutsy messenger of José’s mother. Her acting as this demure virgin tells him of the message, and in which she must give him a kiss, is consummate. Excellent acted portrayals, including dancing and singing, are also present as Ariya Sawadivong’s Frasquita and Tania Ferris’s Mercedes make much of Les Tringles (CH.15). Their location, along with Carmen herself in the card scene, is hair-raising (CH. 31). Andrew Jones as Escamillo, is suitably macho in figure and vividly costumed. However, he is somewhat under-powered vocally. In his aria he tends to squeeze his tone and also sounds somewhat husky. The other roles are all sung respectably and if I found the smugglers, as latter-day insurgents in trilbies (CH.29) unconvincing, it is the only evident weakness that grated.

Like all open-air performances the singers are mouth-miked and this makes stereo imaging more difficult; likewise with the orchestra secreted below the stage, although conductor Brian Castles-Onion achieves miracles in precision and dynamism. For the purist the downsides include the excision of much dialogue, albeit I didn’t miss it, preferring the spectacular Spanish style dancing that permeated the performance.

Robert J Farr

Review of Opera Australia Blu-ray release of difference performances: Ian Lace