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Opera Chats: Carmen (Opera Australia, 2013)

With a spectacular outdoor staging Opera Australia have produced a colorful and mesmerizing Carmen. This four-act French opera, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée, was composed by Georges Bizet, with a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. It was first performed in Paris in March 1875, where it scandalized audiences.

This 2013 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbor production was directed by Gale Edwards and conducted by Brian Castles-Onion. It’s set in Seville in Spain, some time in the first half of the 20th Century.

Don José (Dmytro Popov), a naïve soldier, is seduced by the fiery gypsy Carmen (Rinat Shaham), and decides to desert the military and abandon his childhood sweetheart Micaëla (Nicole Car) for the life of an outlaw. But Carmen has more than one admirer, and toreador Escamillo (Andrew Jones) equals her passionate nature.

Frasquita: Ariya Sawadivong
Mercédès: Tania Ferris
Remendado: Sam Roberts-Smith
Dancairo: Luke Gabbedy
Zuniga Adrian Tamburini
Moralès: Samuel Dundas

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

Set Designer: Brian Thomson
Costume Designer: Julie Lynch
Lighting Designer: John Rayment
Choreographer: Kelley Abbey
Sound Designer: Tony David Cray
Site Designer: Eamon D’Arcy
Fight Director: Kyle Rowling
Assistant Conductor: Paul Fitzsimon
Assistant Director: Michael Campbell
Second Assistant Director: Andy Morton
Assistant to the Lighting Designer: Nicholas Rayment
Dance Captain: Kate Wormald
Musical Preparation: Paul Fitzsimon & Vincent Colagiuri
French Language Coach: Nicole Dorigo

■ ■ ■

Francis: I can’t stop humming the Toreador tune. I don’t know the lyrics, but damn, that’s catchy.

Traxy: Isn’t it just?

F: We have been watching Carmen, performed on a floating stage in the middle of Sydney Harbor.

T: A tilted circular stage, outlined in shiny red lights.

F: With blood stains!

T: And nine-metre high letters spelling out CARMEN across the water.

F: You think it can’t get any more visually striking, and then there’s a big red bull and fireworks!

T: Have you never seen an outdoor opera performance before?

F: Nothing on this kind of scale, that’s for sure.

T: So you enjoyed it?

F: So much I’ll even overlook the bits they left out.

T: Bits they left out?

F: Adaptations gonna adapt. What can I say?

T: Okay, but that’s still some endorsement – considering it’s neither Puccini nor in Italian.

F: Ah, but the French still understand passion.

T: Others don’t?

F: May I remind you of Fidelio?

T: Still don’t think it’s fair to base an entire language’s opera output on one performance.

F: But you gotta admit the Italians and French are known to be passionate.

T: French is the language of love, as they say. And the Spanish are also known for their fiery passion, and this is set in Spain.

F: This is the second time you’ve watched this production, right?

T: Yes. It was the second opera I decided to watch, I think. Or the first? I chose it because it had some songs in it I recognised – like the Toreador Song, and the Habanera.

F: It does have some instantly recognisable tunes for sure. Because you’ve already seen it you knew about the fireworks.

T: Yup.

F: And how they use a crane to move a truck, tank and shipping container on stage.

T: I admit I forgot about those things, but yes.

F: And the big bull at the end.

T: The thing about the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour productions is that they’re big and bold, because they’re not limited by the confines of a physical building. Granted, they’re limited by the size of the stage, but the rest is open, so they can use cranes to lift in a tank if they so choose.

F: And have a soprano sing an aria on top of a shipping container hanging in the air. That takes guts. I’m impressed. She didn’t miss a note! I couldn’t have done that, that’s for sure.

T: Me neither. I don’t think she had to do it for the production to be memorable, because … like, I’m gesturing toward all the other stuff that makes this production stand out.

F: I have to admit I’m a little confused about the concept. Opera Australia is the company behind it, so is Handa Opera the venue?

T: I think it’s something like that. It appears to be a specific short-term thing once a year. They produce a show on a big floating stage in Sydney Harbour at the end of the summer, and it appears they’ve been doing it for the past ten years now. They started in 2012.

F: One a year?

T: Yes. The only one I haven’t gone looking for is 2019, because it wasn’t an opera. It was West Side Story.

F: Ah. Pass.

T: They did Carmen again in 2017, but Sky Arts only had 2013.

F: Same production?

T: Yes. Might have been a different cast, but I didn’t look into it as it’s not the one we’re watching.

F: Makes sense.

T: It was cancelled 2020-2021, for obvious reasons.

F: That also makes sense. And this year?

T: They’re back!

F: Hooray!

T: They’re staging another musical that will no doubt look absolutely spectacular: The Phantom of the Opera. Which, in fairness, does have opera in it.

F: And it’s on our to-do list!

T: Not this version, but yes. We also have all the other Handa operas to get through!

F: Anyway. Let’s talk about Carmen. It wouldn’t be wrong to call this a sexy production.

T: No, I think that would be a fair assessment.

F: Carmencita is going all in on sensuality and seduction.

T: Just look at that cleavage.

F: Hard not to.

T: Like it’s hard to not look at the soldiers’ hats.

F: For very different reasons, sure.

T: It appears to be a tricornio, so a tricorn hat. It’s just not the kind of tricorn hat you normally see. The ones you associate with uniformed men on ships looking through spyglasses.

F: I guess because they’ve gone for a specific era’s uniform. Going by the looks of the clothes in acts three and four, I’m thinking 1930s or 1940s?

T: Sounds about right. I mean, Don José changes into a fedora.

F: A great improvement and the mark of a true gentleman!

T: Except Don José is a ginormous dick, not a gentleman.

F: Yeah, when a hat is the only redeeming feature you don’t qualify as a great guy.

T: I’d argue he’s a Nice Guy™, because he seems to think highly of himself, but in effect he’s just an arsehole.

F: Was he wrong for falling in love with Carmen?

T: No, he was just an idiot to fall for her seduction tactics. She seduced him so that he’d let her out of jail. I doubt she was ever that serious – he wasn’t Mr Right, he was just Mr Right Now, and that seems to be her style. She even has a song about how she gets bored with men after a while! But he started thinking with his dick, and … once she got bored of him, as expected, she moved on and he didn’t.

F: And he decided that if he can’t have her, no one else can either, which is a concept I can’t get behind. If you were right for each other in the first place, you wouldn’t get bored and start looking elsewhere.

T: For starters.

F: You both have to be right for each other, it don’t work one way. If I’m with someone who decides she wants someone else, then I’m clearly not the right person for her, which by definition means she ain’t the right person for me. You’re both right, or you’re both wrong.

T: A number of people, both men and women, seem to think that isn’t the case.

F: And they’re wrong! I know moving on can be hard when you thought you’d found The One, but if you keep clinging to this idea that the person who dumped you is your perfect match then you’re never going to find the one who is. You might not like it, but you gotta let go.

T: But if people let go we wouldn’t have a bunch of 90s romcoms where women upend their lives to follow their cheating ex across the Atlantic, would we?

F: Those are inherently toxic narratives that need to die and stay buried.

T: Yes! Thank you!

F: Speaking of potential perfect matches, do you think Escamillo would have fared any better a few months down the line?

T: I’m not sure. Either they were really well matched or it would have ended badly as well. It could have gone either way.

F: I’m not sure Escamillo would have gone as far. He’s a proud toreador, sure, but he has women falling over themselves to be with him. He’s a celebrity in Seville, he can get anyone at any time. He might not even be exclusive with Carmen, thinking about it. Her moving on to someone else ain’t a big deal.

T: Certainly not worth killing over.

F: I can’t think of any scenario where killing someone because they chose someone else over you is the way to go, even straight up hypothetically.

T: Well, yeah, obviously.

F: It’s like Don José feels she owes him.

T: Yeah, that’s the Nice Guy™ thing again. But owe him for what? Letting her go and getting himself in trouble for it? They were together for months, and arguably had plenty of sex in that time, was that not enough? Then he stuck around instead of answering the roll call. That’s on him.

F: “I’m a sap and you owe me for that!” really is an idiotic stance.

T: There was a production in 2018 who apparently changed the ending, so that Carmen and Don José struggled, but she grabs his gun and shoots him.

F: Good!

T: So it’s still a tragic ending—

F: Is it, though?

T: Okay, it’s still an ending where someone dies, but it’s the one who wanted to murder a woman to make himself feel better about her dumping him. Not the woman whose only “crime” was to dump him.

F: He had it coming.

T: He only had himself to blame.

F: Carmen didn’t deserve to die. You might disagree with her methods, but she didn’t deserve to be killed in cold blood.

T: No. No one does.

F: Well, except for Don José. Who, if he hadn’t lost his mind over a pretty face could have had a loving wife in Micaëla.

T: Micaëla doesn’t have that aura of mystique and danger that Carmen has, which probably is what drew him in.

F: I agree, Micaëla’s “safe”, and she’s beautiful but in a more familiar way, and I hate to use the word “domesticated” here, but you know what I mean.

T: Life with her would be predictable and jolly nice, tea and crumpets with the vicar.

F: Er, yeah, along those lines.

T: And life with Carmen might mean fantastic sex, but you’re also hanging out in a camp with smugglers, and you’re a wanted criminal.

F: Even if the sex is fantastic, there has to be more to a relationship than that, but you have to be mature enough to realize it. Carmen is the woman boys think they want to spend their lives with.

T: And Micaëla is what men actually want? A meek housewife type? Please.

F: Oh God, no! Okay, sure. Some do, no question, but there has to be more to your life companion than “they’re nice and my parents will approve of them”. You need to be supportive of each other.

T: What about love?

F: Goes without saying. I think Micaëla shows much more genuine love toward him than Carmen ever does. She cares about his mother. All Carmen does is tell him he should go home to his Mommy – not because she’s concerned about her ailing health, but because it’s a great way to get rid of him. She can’t tell him to fuck off, but it’s a good reason for him to go, and maybe stay away a while and … eventually forget to return.

T: “Oh what a shame you have to leave. No, no, go ahead, don’t worry about me. You go. She needs you. I’ll be fine. Take your time. – Is he gone? Finally! Okay guys, change the locks.”

F: He would have been much better off with Micaëla. Not because she’s the safer option—

T: Even though she is.

F: —But because she seems to care about him as a person.

T: And her showing she cares about his mother is a bonus, I take it?

F: I see it as a prerequisite, but that’s because mine’s a close-knit family who spend a lot of time together. His might not be.

T: We’ve been talking a lot about the characters so far. What about the cast?

F: I mentioned it takes guts to sit on a shipping container suspended in mid-air and not miss a note. It takes skill and professionalism, and Nicole Car has both in abundance.

T: And you mentioned Carmen’s cleavage.

F: Hey now, play fair. Rinat Shaham was a fantastic Carmen, which I’m sure I’ve already mentioned. Such passion, and, yes, sexual energy. What’s that equate to in British?

T: You’re “quite taken” with her.

F: For sure! And I’m happy to say that regardless of her neckline, ya know. I’d see her in more things, that’s for sure. Great voice, great energy.

T: And Don José?

F: Dmytro Popov has one of those faces that’s gonna make him look 25 when he’s 55. Totally unfair.

T: I meant his voice, but okay.

F: You know, I’d watch him again too. See how he does in Italian.

T: His face does remind me a little of a young Orson Welles, which is never a bad thing in my book.

F: So I’ve gathered.

T: I really hope he’s okay and that we do get to see him again.

F: Considering he’s Ukrainian.

T: Yeah.

F: Discussing ongoing wars ain’t the remit of this series of posts, let’s be honest, so let’s wish him and his native country well and change the subject.

T: Probably for the best. The blog has always been meant to be escapist. Although, speaking of politics, the guy running around wearing a bull’s head kind of reminds me of that insurrection shaman dude.

F: Another thing not to get into.

T: Just sayin’.

F: Let’s talk about the act transitions instead. Between acts one and two there was a dance number. Flamenco, I’m guessing.

T: Probably. It was energetic.

F: I really do admire dancers. The stamina, the strength, the graceful movements …

T: I’ve never been keen on background dancers on TV. They always seemed so random and in the way. Like they’re some kind of moving clutter.

F: … Yeah, see, that’s a you thing. Most of us enjoy them.

T: What was the transition between acts three and four? I don’t remember.

F: The arrival of everyone at the bull ring?

T: Oh, yeah. That was cool. Lots of colours.

F: And between acts two and three, do you remember that? After the interval?

T: Yes, that was the hovering shipping container to the tune of a very pleasant instrumental melody, Intermezzo. Sounded kind of like a lullaby. Loved it. It’s on my “classical favourites” playlist now. It reminds me a little of Grieg’s Morning Mood, which I also love.

F: Your favorite piece from Carmen is an instrumental? Kind of ironic, don’t you think?

T: Well, saying the Habanera feels too much like saying my favourite ABBA song is Mamma Mia. “Which is your favourite song? – The zero effort most iconic one everyone knows. I haven’t listened to any of their studio albums, only their Greatest Hits, but I’m such a huge ABBA fan.” Ugh.

F: You realize there are some people who have listened to all the studio albums and still say Mamma Mia is their favorite, right? It would be statistically impossible for that to not happen with at least one person.

T: Okay, fine. I still think there are much better ABBA songs out there, but fine.

F: You’re allowed to like the Habanera, you know. It’s a great piece. These songs don’t become iconic for no reason. A lot of people have never heard of Turandot but they still recognise Nessun dorma with its “Vincero!” and they could have never heard of Rigoletto but still hum along to La donna è mobile.

T: True.

F: Like we said before, opera gets everywhere, even when you don’t expect it. It’s a cultural institution.

T: So it is.

F: Any final thoughts before we wrap up?

T: The camera work is less static, if you think about it.

F: Less static?

T: When you film in a theatre, you have a number of cameras in fixed positions and you cut between them. Some are zoomed in, some are not, but they generally capture the view from the front – maybe one camera above. Because they’re not constrained by a building, the cameras can move around the stage in a completely different manner. They have the space to sweep across the stage, from high to low, left to right. It’s also something I like about the Handa operas.

F: I’ll keep it in mind with the next one we watch.

T: Will it be another one of these?

F: No, think we’ll go for an entirely different composer again, but we’ll work out the details later. Until then?

T: A presto!

Francis

An old school gentleman in a modern world, longing for the simplicity of days gone by. Definitely not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos and going to the opera. A meticulous dresser with Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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