Carmen lights up Sydney Harbour

Handa Opera on the Harbour's production of Carmen looks impressive.

Carmen by Georges Bizet
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour
Opera Australia
Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair
Until April 23

You could be mistaken in thinking that this is the big anniversary year for Bizet or Carmen. The Royal NZ Ballet is just finishing its tour of the Carmen ballet and the New Zealand Opera is doing a production of the opera later in the year. Now Sydney has got a production on the water for the next month. The only thing is, this isn’t an anniversary year for Bizet or Carmen.

However, the Handa Opera on the Harbour's production of Carmen looks impressive. The Handa Opera productions are rarely merely straightforward productions and this year director Gale Edwards has ensured that it is spectacular with everything on a grand scale.

There is a huge floating pontoon with a 32-metre-high set of blazing red lights spelling out CARMEN, a giant billboard a la HOLLYWOOD sign in California. The huge raked stage provides shelter for the 44 players from the Opera Australia Orchestra in the case of inclement weather. Bringing the perfect sound to the audience are 223 speakers that provide an enveloping sound and allows the dialogue to be crystal clear.

One of the more spectacular elements of the production involves two cranes depositing a tank and truck on the stage for the soldiers to laze about on as well as a large shipping container – these smugglers don’t seem to use backpacks and donkeys.

The huge CARMEN sign is also used as multi-level part of the set serving as the smugglers' hideout as well as the tiered galleries of the bullring in the final scene.

At times, there are nearly 80 people on stage including the eight principals and, with 20 dancers in the cast, they manage to put on some spectacular dance routines. At the beginning of the scene set at Pastia’s bar, an additional flamenco dance routine without music has been introduced which gives the performance a much more Spanish feel than much of the other dancing.

The opera is set in mid-twentieth century southern Spain at the time of Franco's rule and tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by the fiery gypsy Carmen. José deserts his military post, yet loses Carmen's love to the glamorous toreador Escamillo, after which José kills her in a jealous rage.

Even through the story is straightforward, it was originally controversial and shocked late 19th century audiences with its depictions of proletarian life, immorality, and lawlessness, and the tragic death of the main female character on stage offended many.

In the lead role as Carmen, Sian Pendry created a supremely well-judged character with just the right levels of sensuality, rebelliousness and romanticism, conveying a complex character with elements of the feminist, the revolutionary and the hedonist.

She sang   L'amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is like an unruly bird) when she tells of the untameable nature of love using a beguiling voice that both tantalised and spurned. In this aria and others, her acerbic voice was like a strong spicy dish, attractive but resulting in severe consequences.

She maintained the strength of her voice even in the upper registers and competing with the orchestra.

Creating the role of Don José is difficult as the man must depict going through major transformations. Arnold Rutkowskin took the man from smart, principled soldier to dishevelled, isolated and frenzied pariah with both crisp acting and a well-honed voice, conveying the subtle changes in the character and tracing his emotional, moral and physical decline.  

The first person seen on stage is Micaëla, sung by Stacey Alleaume. This sweet girl who was once Don Jose’s girlfriend and is still infatuated with him has to sing and act in an almost ambivalent fashion. In singing Parle-moi de ma mère, delivering the news to Don Jose of his mother’s love for her son, her emotionally charged voice has to speak as the mother but expresses her own passionate, unrequited love for the man. Her purity of love contrasts with the lustful desires of Carmen with beautifully nuanced tones.

Michael Honeyman’s stentorian voice echoes the nature of Escamillo, proud, self-centred and heroic. He is presented as a celebrity. and driven to the stage in a classic Jaguar and later arrives for the bull fight like a classic statue delivered by crane and dropped into the bull-fighting arena by crane. He is the one character who will survive through the story of Carmen.

Carmen’s two friends, Frasquita (Jane Ede) and Mercédès (Margaret Trubiano), provided both contrast and support for Carmen particularly their Act III, card-reading sequence.

There are many scenes which are large and spectacular but there are others which are more intimate and powerful. In one scene where Don Jose has tied Carmen up with a large rope before taking her to prison the two of them, at either end of the rope circle each pulling at each other as though taming a wild animal. But who was the wild one and who was being the tamer was unclear – although in the end it was Don Jose who came under Carmen’s control and she sets herself free.

Their final duet, sung while the bullfight is taking place provided the dramatic conclusion with both the couple and the bull fight is dominated by the large red outline of the Osborne Bull.

The producers might like to note that for future productions of the opera the large letters of CARMEN should be replaced with the word SEVILLE, which is where most of the action is occurring and is more in line with the notion of the HOLLYWOOD sign.

The best place to stay if you’re going to Carmen is the Intercontinental Hotel on Macquarie St, which is built around the beautifully restored Treasury Building of 1851, From the rooms of the north and east you can see stage for the opera nestled into the bay of Mrs Macquaries Chair at the end of the Royal Botanic Garden. The walk from the hotel to the venue is less than 15 minutes and most nights is faster than catching a taxi

The hotel this year has partnered with Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour to create the only VIP package with exclusive access, experiences and entertainment.

The Carmen Insider Experience is priced from $850.00 for two adults and includes luxury overnight accommodation with deluxe breakfast for two and two A Reserve tickets for Carmen.

The package also includes access to a pre-show backstage tour a signed programme, plus lavish dining experiences with pre-event champagne and nibbles in the Carmen-themed cocktail bar and access to the Platinum Club drinks lounge on the top floor of the hotel with Sydney Harbour views.



John Daly-Peoples travelled to Sydney with the assistance of Destination New South Wales