Bizet – Carmen

Opera Australia – Sydney, Thursday March 6 2008

Conductor: Stephen Mould. Director: Francesca Zambello. Moralès: Andrew Moran. Micaëla: Tiffany Speight. Don José: Rosario La Spina. Zuniga: Shane Lowrencov. Carmen: Catherine Carby. Frasquita: Amy Wilkinson. Mercédès: Sian Pendry. Lillas Pastia: Danielle Antaki. Escamillo: Joshua Bloom.

Being in Sydney for the first time, I thought I’d better go, even if the only choice was between Carmen and La Bohème. I plumped for Carmen, preferring Bizet to Puccini, and, knowing that Zambello’s productions can be very good or very bad, hoping it might be one of the former.

It was a grand, audacious gesture to build the Sydney Opera House as and where it is. As I remember, at the time it led to a great deal of blood, sweat and tears, but the result must be one of the most interesting opera houses in the world – and probably the most spectacularly-located of all. The building is certainly more interesting close up than in photos: less bland in colour and texture, more brutal – though a bit gloomy – inside. The views across the bay from the bar are – helped by the gloom inside, I guess - marvellous. Focal point of the bustling harbour with its matter-of-fact little green-and-cream ferries plying to and fro and the massive, dark bridge arching across the water, it is a real, modern landmark and I suppose, today, as much the symbol of Sydney as the Eiffel Tower has become for Paris.

A world-class building, then, with world-class seat prices, but, on Thursday evening at any rate, far from world-class singing. I suppose I came late in the run, so some of the cast were tired and some were stand-ins, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a vocal rag-bag on a professional operatic stage (i.e. discounting such hors-jeu items as Le chanteur de Mexico at the Châtelet).

Micaëla was probably the best, a light, silvery voice but audible. Carmen came a close second; but Catherine Carby lacked both the top and bottom the role sometimes calls for and was overall underpowered. Though a good-looking woman, like most of the rest of the corn-fed Australian girls on stage, she was more the good-natured Irish Catholic girl than the Andalusian Gypsy.

Rosario La Spina seemed worn out as Don José. His voice was pinched and painful, never open-throated, though the notes were the right ones and never actually cracked. He made a placid, ungainly José: young, unshaven, greasy-haired, and in a costume that highlighted his vast behind. The more handsome Joshua Bloom, entering on a magnificent chestnut horse (no wonder Carmen soon ditched her tubby José), looked a lot better than he sang. His timbre varied from hoot to hot-potato to hoarse, and when he wasn’t sharp he was flat.

The pit, in Sydney, is recessed under the stage. If that is, as I’ve been told, a successful arrangement at Bayreuth, in Sydney it isn’t. The orchestra is annoyingly muffled. Whether that, or the conductor, was responsible for the total lack of drama in the playing (and, to me at any rate, Bizet’s score, however familiar, continues to have real hair-raising potential) is not easy to say, but I suspect it’s the conductor’s fault.

Zambello’s staging, in a modular set of curving, red-ochre walls that moved around for each act, with a variety of props including an orange tree, a donkey, some hens, an awning and an Andalusian Holy-Week virgin, crowned and surrounded with candles, on far-too-brisk casters (the thing should have been carried in, swaying precariously, not wheeled in smoothly like a dessert trolley), was surprisingly conventional. There were some good details off to the sides, as it were; but as I mentioned above, Australians: tanned, fair-haired and freckled, their limbs toned by years of tennis, swimming and surf, make unconvincing gypsies – especially in all that skirt-raising, hip-gyrating stuff and sitting lasciviously astride their menfolk - and the action was often too baldly contrived: the way cigarette-girls “composed” rapidly into a picturesque,seated group at the stage apron for the chorus, or how Frasquita and Mercedes bustled in with a fur rug and packs of cards and settled quickly, centre-stage, for their ensemble with Carmen. They could have been more naturally in place before their time to sing came.

And there were some oddities. Lillas Pastia was, here, a young woman. Carmen and Don J., before the kill, scrabbled comically and inexplicably on the floor, he (like a beached whale) grasping at her ankles as she tried to “swim away”. She was, by the way, completely embourgeoisée at this stage in the plot, in a stiff gold-and black, bustled dress and black mantilla. The stabbing was remarkably un-dramatic and antic-climactic, as Micaëla looked on unmoved over the top of the bullring wall.

The Sydney audience, however, are game for anything, laughing at any potentially funny lines or action and clapping enthusiastically at the end. Not a great evening, but this is an easy-going town and I was in an easy-going mood, even more so after the good dinner (and local wine) I had afterwards, al fresco at the water’s edge. I might though, be less easy-going if I lived here and this was the usual operatic standard…


  1. AnonymousJuly 06, 2009

    You are a stupid and bitter old cunt.


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