I confess I was surprised to hear that the West Australian Opera’s revival of Carmen had sold out. Lindy Hume’s production was groundbreaking 26 years ago but when I last saw it in 2010 it looked tired, it’s feminist themes outdated. Still, Carmen ranks as one of the three most popular operas in the world. And with the increased social awareness thanks to the #MeToo movement Carmen’s themes of power imbalance and violence against women have a new resonance. The Carmen in Prosper Merimee’s novella (converted to opera by librettists Meilhac and Halevy and composer Bizet) wants to choose the way she will live, love and die. It turns out Hume’s production, created during the third wave feminism of the nineties, is perfectly timed.
Hume rehearsed the revival herself and the extra spit and polish and thematic realignment made the opera far more compelling. Dan Potra’s naturalistic set with its rusty steel staircases and flaking walls was enhanced by melodramatic spotlighting and more vivid illumination thanks to some lighting updates initiated during the New Zealand Opera’s season last year.
Hume’s gift for clear, cliché-free storytelling was evident everywhere. In her hands the overture became a visual synopsis with the full cast onstage, exiting one by one to leave Carmen centre stage and glowering. From the very first scene the men sexually harassed and verbally abused the women. But Hume is by no means a misandrist; the female factory workers delivered a screeching, vicious cat fight chorus, contrasting shockingly with their dreamy Dans l’air, nous suivons des yeux sung just moments before. Bizet was intent on introducing French audiences to the gritty realism of Italian verismo opera and Hume’s production does just that: humanity in all its complicated messiness.
Hume’s Carmen wore pants, carried a gun and both exploited and mocked female seduction. The Act II entr’acte opened with a sinister tavern scene with men ogling a dancing girl but Carmen turned male privilege on its head and it was the men who were undressed by Carmen and her gypsy friends as they whipped up a dancing frenzy. The comparatively bland Don Jose was clearly a poor match for Carmen and after she rejected him Done Jose deteriorated into madness. The final scene was gut wrenching with its chilling resemblance to the crimes of passion West Australians have heard too often in the media recently.
WA Opera artistic director Brad Cohen’s knack for casting was apparent again with an outstanding team of principals who invested deeply in their roles. Emma Pearson’s golden sweetness as Michaela was delightful, marked by shimmering lyrical phrasing. Her voice was the perfect colour match with Paul O’Neill’s Don Jose and she elevated Michaela into a substantial determined character who physically wrestled Don Jose from the stage in Act 3.
Milijana Nikolic’s dark chocolate mezzo soprano and her impressive stature made a voluptuously powerful Carmen. Her Habanera was a slow burn simmering with power. However her uncontrolled vibrato and pitch issues made her Act Two duet with Don Jose problematic. O’Neill’s smooth tenor sounded strained trying to match her volume, although there was passion in spades. I’ve never thought the character of Don Jose would rival Lucia but in Act Four O’Neill delivered a full blown mad scene, his voice and body twisting and crumpling in a powerful coup de théâtre.
James Clayton’s Escamillo was coolly suave and vocally commanding, clearly the best match for Carmen. Rebecca Castellini and Fleuranne Brockway gave spirited contributions as the gypsies Frasquita and Mercedes and Paull-Anthony Keightley was convincing as the degenerate officer Zuniga.
Ian Westrip’s impressive work as guest chorus master delivered an ensemble who were robust and cohesive with a cocky bunch of children adding their bright contributions. Bizet’s music drips with humanity and the WA Symphony Orchestra under Antony Walker used Bizet’s Spanish flavours and thematic architecture to drive the opera’s impact deeper still. If you are one of the lucky ones with tickets, be prepared; this is a production that will imprint on your soul.
Carmen continues until July 28th.