Wednesday August 23, 2017
CARMEN – HANDA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR 2017
Review

CARMEN – HANDA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR 2017

By Diana Simmonds
March 26 2017

CARMEN, Opera Australia presents Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, 24 March-23 April 2017. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - Josè Maria Lo Monaco; below Lo Monaco with Margaret Trubiano and Jane Ede; below again: Lo Monaco with Andeka Gorrotxategi

When director Gale Edwards’s spectacular HOSH production of Carmen was first seen in 2013, I wrote of the thoughtful and memorable stage design by Brian Thomson, which together with his design for La Traviata the year before, set the benchmark for the venue; also of the rich array of costumes by Julie Lynch that so greatly added to the extravaganza; and also of Edwards’s setting of Bizet’s melodrama in the Spain of dictator Franco and the Civil War

Aside from the obvious changes – primarily different casts – this Carmen remains a tribute to the creative team of Edwards, set designer Thomson, costume designer Lynch, lighting designer John Rayment and choreographer Kelly Abbey. On opening night this time around, however, only Abbey and Rayment were present to be applauded at the after party. 

Most opera fans and anyone who reads the arts press will know that in recent months – culminating in a very public showdown last week – there has been bad blood between the trio of Lynch, Edwards and Thomson and OA artistic director and interim CEO, Lyndon Terracini. It began when Edwards’s offer to work on this re-staging was knocked back even though she was then available and in Sydney. Instead, young Englishman Andy Morton, whose career to date is an impressive list of “assistant” and “revival” director posts, was given the task of remounting the show. 

The upshot of the stoush between AD-CEO and creatives was a media release, last week, from the latter suggesting the integrity of the work could no longer be guaranteed by them. An immediate riposte from OA asserted that all its revival directors, “painstakingly and lovingly present these productions as true to their original format as possible”.

Happily, the production remains highly entertaining and largely faithful to Edwards’s vision. And, as originally conceived, it’s splendid and ideally suited to the artistic rigours of large-scale outdoor performance. But – and it’s a “but” as big as they come – there is a huge change – inexplicably, unnecessarily and unforgivably – and that is to the closing scene. Unfortunately for OA, this actually cannot be denied (except in a Trumpian Dystopia, perhaps) because there is film of the original on the ’net and it’s there for anyone to find and see. 

The problem with changing the end of this production and frankly only a political naif or a man could fail to understand – is that it undermines and therefore ruins what has been painstakingly and subtly set up for the character of Carmen over the previous three hours.

It’s not the first time this has happened to a Carmen (independent women being the willy-shrivellers they so wickedly are). When Lindy Hume directed her famously controversial Carmen in 2002, with the wondrous Suzanne Johnston in the title role, there was much harumphing and reams of complaints from the dinosaur set, as I later wrote: “No wonder so many women adored Lindy Hume’s feminist interpretation of Carmen wherein she (Suzanne Johnston) boldly chose the manner and time of her death, rather than meekly submitting.” 

In the Hume-Johnston version, Carmen refuses to be cowed by Don Jose’s threats and demands and stands alone and defiant until he shoots her. When the production was revived in Hume’s absence, it was the opening scene that was changed – dropped – and it removed the dramatic and key motif of proud defiance by the poor against the bourgeoisie (the audience). And the shooting of Carmen was always a sticking point – too noble for the brazen hussy, perhaps. 

CARMEN – HANDA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR 2017

Since then, murder of women by jealous men – still euphemistically referred to as “domestic violence” – has escalated exponentially. It makes Gale Edwards’ directorial choice even more apposite and the change to it even more unacceptable. In 2013, while the matador Escamillo is taunting a bull to run at him in the unseen but heard corrida in the Plaza de Toros, Carmen is beyond the walls, similarly goading Don Jose to make good on his threat to kill her. 

The significance of these twinned actions is that in a bull fight, the courage of a matador is measured in his ability to stand firm and not run in the face of danger. So, from the roars of the crowd we know Escamillo is demonstrating this perfect geometry of life and death in the ring while outside, it is Carmen who stands firm while Don Jose fails the ultimate test. He makes a running pass at her, slashing her   throat as he goes. Yet Carmen stands firm, like Escamillo, slowly turns to the audience, sinks to the ground – alone, defiant and dignified – and dies. It’s tragic and grand.

Now, in 2017, it’s not. Instead Don Jose grabs Carmen, pulls her to him in an unwanted and resisted embrace and stabs her in the gut. Then, as she drops to the ground, he clutches her to his breast, suddenly full of remorse, and he cradles her dying form and wails. It’s an outrageous let-off and sympathy-grabber and is what every bashing, bullying, murderous bastard looks for in court rooms and men’s groups throughout the country. And it is precisely what Gale Edwards avoided. Shame on you, Andy Morton.

Meanwhile, it seems likely that unless AD Lyndon Terracini can find it in himself to be as big as Escamillo, one of the greatest creative partnerships in Opera Australia’s history (Terracini, Edwards, Thomson and Lynch) will now be lost to the company. 

And another shame in this instance, is that offstage – and onstage – problems should in any way overshadow the performers in the 2017 Carmen. This year fast-rising Italian mezzo Josè Maria Lo Monaco, is a natural in the role: a passionate and convincing actress, full of fire, anger and humour, she is blessed with a rich, agile and colourful voice that is ideal for Bizet’s glorious music. 

On opening night heavy ”dew” fell early on, causing a few distractions and much rustling activity in an audience that suddenly bloomed with plastic ponchos. There were occasional slips among the dancers and a few slides in Lo Monaco’s singing, but as the evening went on she settled into a thrilling performance, despite the conditions. She’s the most thrilling and convincing Carmen Sydney has seen since the above-mentioned Suzanne Johnston.

The other principals are also excellent: as the matador Escamillo, Luke Gabbedy makes a strutter and poser of Hollywood epic quality and has a gorgeous voice to match. At the other end of the masculine spectrum, the fatally mutable corporal Don Jose is beautifully sung and credibly performed by Basque tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi. And it’s not an easy role to pull off: as well as falling for Carmen and going rogue from the Guardia with the rebels, he also has to betray Natalie Aroyan’s Michaela. This is quite the task as Aroyan makes every moment of the role count and her great aria, sung from high above the stage, is electrifying.

Carmen’s gal pals Mercedes and Frasquita are in the safe hands, comic sensibilities and superb voices of Margaret Trubiano and Jane Ede; and the rest of the company is equally fine. A troupe of versatile dancers figure prominently in the production and are fortunate to have had Kelly Abbey on hand to restate her original and complex choreography, fresh from the contrastingly  tiny triumph of her work on the Hayes Theatre’s Cabaret. 

CARMEN – HANDA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR 2017

Then, of course, there’s the OA Orchestra and Chorus – both more than usually significant and integral to this opera and again under the baton of Brian Castles-Onion. He has conducted from the bowels of the barge for each of the HOSH productions and although he splutters at praise, he’s a musical hero in these circumstances. 

Sound design by Tony David Cray is also and obviously important to the outdoor experience. He’s a wizard at this kind of tricky gig: anyone who was lucky enough to see last year’s Eighth Wonder on the Opera House steps will recall how amazing the sound mix was through headphones. It’s probably too much of an ask to kit out the HOSH audience (close to 3000 on a good night) with ear-wear, but it would make all the difference. Although in past years the mix of orchestra, soloists and chorus has been surprisingly good – and may well depend on where you’re sitting – for me it was a bit too rock’n’roll, with the soloists too high in the mix.

Nevertheless, HOSH remains a quintessentially Sydney experience: extravagant, showy, dramatic and a bit daft. This production of Carmen is a beauty in its setting and all praise must go to its original creators – hurriedly rushed over and un-applauded in the thanks speech. 

Ironically, the speeches were mucked up by intermittent mic failure, and in one of the pauses guest Bookshelves Brandis stopped slurping just long enough to sneer at the (long) litany of thanks and audibly suggest it be curtailed. An ungracious dollop of lard he is, quite spoiled the view.

After seven years Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is a demonstrably popular fixture on the “summer” calendar and Carmen is well worth a poncho and the trek to Mrs Macquarie’s Point.

(But if you’d like to watch the 2013 original and see how this Carmen should end, here’s a link... https://www.youpak.com/watch?v=zSH4rs5AbnU)

 

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