This is a different kind of Carmen. Less of a man-magnet (although she is still that) and more of an independent woman of the world, Carmen opens the opera by emerging silently from the dark, puffing at a cigarette, eyeballing the audience, challenging them, before departing the stage while the familiar rousing music begins. Director Lindy Hume’s concept is a feminist Carmen (which is fine up to a point, although at time out of kilter with the text).
It is certainly a fascinating and original production of Carmen, with much to please old hands as well as newcomers to this most popular of operas. Yet for various reasons it is not entirely satisfactory.
The OQ chorus under chorus master John Dingle and the Queensland Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Kamirski, do a splendid job. There is a consistently fine sound from the orchestra, including some top brass passages as demanded by the score. The chorus is rich and vibrant with great depth and range, and is well augmented by the children’s chorus. (By the way the children could be grubbier as urchins.) The large chorus and extras are generally well used by Lindy Hume (and local director Richard Jones), although not all their movements are convincing. And the repeated spectacle of all the men menacingly pointing their rifles at any minor disturbance is more comical than realistic. There’s also much smoking, as verisimilitude would require, but the chorus understandably look uncomfortable puffing at their cigarettes. The generally good surtitles are a bit wobbly.
Sets are ominously impressive, representing stark concrete-rendered inner-city buildings, down to cracks and signs of decay, buttressed by external stairways which give the huge cast room to spread in all directions. The generous depth of the stage is used and lit very well, in representing the city square of the opening scene and the open air vistas roamed by the gypsy bandits, as well as giving plenty of space for movements of the large numbers involved. The shifting inward of the sets allows an intimacy when required, especially for the dramatic final scene where Carmen is confronted by her obsessive ex-lover.
As to the principals, the much heralded German mezzo Yvonne Fontane plays her character in a dramatic and riveting way, but is disappointing vocally for much of the first half, outsung by fellow principals, with her sultry sexiness at times blurring intonation. Happily her command of the singing part steadily improves, so that the fine music with Natoli and chorus at the end of the first half is beautifully sung and very effective. Their paean to freedom is an expression of human yearning, needing no feminist gloss. Similarly impressive are her vocal and dramatic work at the opera’s bloody conclusion.
Dominic Natoli as Don Jose sings a soaring melody line. His is a clear and pure tenor sound, and he acts his part well, although like most Joses he doesn’t quite seem the type who Carmen would fall for, even temporarily. Jeffrey Black as Escamillo looks and acts very much the magnificent bullfighter who sweeps Carmen off her feet as both hunk and soulmate. Yet Black is singing at less than his best and doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the French diction of the libretto.
Surprise star of the night is the beautifully voiced Nicole Youl as Micaela. Acting the girl next door to perfection, her singing is a treat, and we will long remember her soaring soprano voice as she pleads for Jose’s affection. Perhaps she didn’t have to be made quite so homely.
There are other pleasures. Andrew Collis, Bradley Daley, Shaun Brown and Jason Barry-Smith make a fine contribution, while I was particularly taken by Tarita Botsman and Deborah Humble, whose lovely duet in the gypsy fortune-telling scene is thrilling in its effect.
Carmen traditionalists should be warned that as part of Hume’s vision of doing away with Spanish paraphernalia we lose the dancing: scenes for which Bizet wrote music to be danced are swayed or played out in various eroticised movements, some OK, some silly. I’d have liked a nice habanera or seguidilla.