REVIEW: Carmen; John Bell Production Revival – Opera Australia

1 year ago
Declan Dowling

“I like to be in America, Okay by me in Americ–”…Oh, no, wait sorry – CARMEN.

Bafflingly I was distracted by how seamlessly fresh Opera Australia’s Latin American revival of John Bell’s Carmen is that I was unable to recognise it as Bizet’s clunky 150 year old opera at a glance. Often when tinkering with and updating the setting of works like Carmen it leaves a rather disdainful taste in ones mouth, looking past the hideous wart of bad appropriation of a text is often impossible. And yet (unsurprisingly given his reputation) Mr Bell has taken Carmen directorally in a different direction to expectation – and given us a light, bright and playful version of the otherwise passionate and brooding operatic tragedy – That, defying my expectations, works in a way that makes you think that Carmen could be done in no other context.

Mr. Bell’s vision was carried out excellently by the Revival Director Constantine Costi.

An unexpected and notable treat was indeed the choreography by Kelley Abbey and its revival execution by Amy Campbell. Exciting, bold and dynamic Abbey and Campbell have created a stage that is tinglingly electric with latin and hip-hop energy. Between this and Michael Scott-Mitchell’s Evita-esque set design, which although mostly unchanging doesn’t fail in the slightest to be an engaging and versatile space for audience and performers alike; and Trent Suidgeest’s simply charming lighting design Carmen feels at home like never before.

Where Mr. Bell and Opera Australia have been let down however is in the designs of Teresa Negroponte’s costuming. It was like Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky ganged up on me and jabbed me in the eyes with their paintbrushes the whole show with no mercy or purpose. All the colours of the rainbow were massacred across the stage – while the principal of the design could have worked a treat it was executed poorly with seemingly no co-ordination of colour or style throughout. This is especially notable in the surreptitious nature of the smugglers’ den which becomes significantly undermined by the presence of the full chorus still in their vividly coloured 80’s workout-wear-esque ‘mobster gear’…least covert mobsters ever.

The cast was led by the undeniably show stealing voices and utter investiture in performance from Robert Aronica as Don José and Claudia Pavone as Michaëla who out shined a rather Ordinary Veronica Simeoni as Carmen. Simeoni is without a doubt a great talent but in the case of Carmen she was simply on Par, no more or less than expected with ‘Habanera’ being notably un-noteworthy. Another rather cheeky standout was Virgilio Marino as Remendado, I simply could not take my eyes off the man as he exuded an energy which spoke to me as if he was really there. On the other hand the Opera Australia Chorus was the most un-latin and un-present element in this production and rather broke the illusion as only some seemed to be able to maintain the raw energy the rest of the vision was desperately screaming for.

I might note at this point I’m running out of new ways to express my praise for the musicians who make up the Opera Australia Orchestra, as they and the Legendary Conductor Christian Badea are impeccable as always. All I can say to them is thank you for doing what you do.

John Bell’s vision of a corrupt and colourful Latin America brings a spice and nuvo that directors of Carmen are beginning to run out of in their search to express the usually expected passion and broody darkness on the stage.

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