Hume’s Carmen stands the test of time

23 July 2018

Review: West Australian Opera, Carmen ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 21 July ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Back in 1992, when Lindy Hume’s Carmen made its debut, it was labelled “the feminist Carmen”. Picked up by Opera Australia, this Carmen has been seen around Australia, and was last brought to the stage by West Australian Opera in 2010. Despite its many outings, it was my first time seeing this production and I was curious to discover how a twenty-something year old “feminist opera” would live up to the hype.

What struck me immediately about this Carmen (directed by Hume herself) was how fresh it feels, in terms of design. The shabby, stuccoed walls of Dan Potra’s set cleverly shift and fold – sometimes in view of the audience – to transform the space as required. The angled flats not only create an appropriately claustrophic backdrop but also ensure that the notoriously variable sight lines at His Majesty’s Theatre are much improved.

And, while the production may not be new, its feminist message still rings true, perhaps even more so, in this post #MeToo era. Act I’s soldiers are menacing rather than teasing as they gather around the timid Micaëla (Emma Pearson). When the women appear from the cigarette factory, they are not so much flirtatious and provocative as tired and worn out. Though beautiful in their aprons and long skirts (designed by Vicki Feitscher), the muted colour palette reflects their fatigue, and the gap between the men’s interpretation of their appearance and the reality is almost laughable.

Emma Pearson as Michaela and Paul O'Neill as Don Jose
Paul O’Neill as Don José, the naïve, lovestruck young man who loses his mind to love, with Emma Pearson as the vulnerable but gutsy Micaëla. Photo: James Rogers.

Carmen, by contrast, is undeniably sexy, but the way she is positioned on stage plays with conventional portrayals of this role. Potra’s utilitarian metal staircases enable a vertical use of space, so that Carmen makes her entrance, and sings most of her famous Habanera, poised above the heads of the gently swaying soldiers. As Carmen, Serbian mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic delivered the aria with an almost weary insouciance, the richness and warmth of her vocals trickling down the steps to tantalise the listening men and women alike. Nikolic is perfectly cast in this production, convincing as both the sensual but selfish woman of the first two acts and the tragic heroine of the latter two.

As Don José – the naïve, lovestruck young man who loses his mind to love – Paul O’Neill’s transformation was even more pronounced and skilfully executed. In Act II’s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” (the Flower Song), his glorious and dramatic tenor was infused with passion; in his final, crazed entreaties to Carmen in Act IV, that passion had given way to a madness that was as pitiful as Carmen’s death. The parallels that Hume has drawn between this situation and contemporary domestic violence against women were painfully apparent.

James Clayton as Escamillo
Superstar aplomb: James Clayton as Escamillo. Photo: James Rogers.

Of course, the appearance of José’s romantic rival, the toreador Escamillo, is Act II’s mass-appeal moment, which must be somewhat daunting for the actor playing the role. Amidst the shadows of the dimly lit tavern, however, James Clayton managed the challenge with superstar aplomb. Clad in black great coat and black leather gloves, he cut an imposing figure as Escamillo, delivering his aria with a punch and clarity that delighted the opening night audience. A moment in which he is abruptly plunged into near-darkness, lit only from overhead, is dramatically cinematic; one of many pleasing touches from lighting designer Stephen Wickham.

Less well-known, but equally impressive was the beautifully blended quintet “Nous avons en tête une affaire!”, sung by Rebecca Castellani (Frasquita), Fleuranne Brockway (Mercédès), Mark Alderson (Dancaire), Matt Reuben James Ward (Remendado) and Nikolic. Castellani and Brockway shone again in Act III, with their delightful rendition of the comical “Mêlons! Coupons!”. Wrapping and weaving around one another, Castellani’s voice had an airy, bird-like quality that beautifully contrasted Brockway’s deeper, more mellow tones.

Emma Pearson as Michaela
At once vulnerable and powerful: Emma Pearson as Micaëla. Photo: James Rogers.

It was Emma Pearson’s “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”, however, that evoked the strongest audience response, and with excellent reason. As the anxious yet brave Micaëla, venturing into the mountains to notify José that his mother’s death is imminent, Pearson was at once vulnerable and powerful. Vocally, she was magnificent, masterfully controlling the dynamic and emotional contrasts that this poignant aria requires. The applause was rapturous for this much-loved local soprano.

Mention must be made, too, of the impeccably rehearsed Carmen Children’s Chorus, who not only sang sweetly and tunefully but also performed with commendable gusto.

Last but not least, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Antony Walker, provided a polished and evocative accompaniment. In particular, the Entr’acte to Act III had a delicious bittersweet quality.

There are few criticisms to be made of this production, and these are minor. The lack of recognisable flamenco style in the dancing is one. While this production doesn’t credit a choreographer or use trained dancers, it would not take a lot of research to add some authenticity in this regard. And the use of fake blood to dramatise Carmen’s murder produced some nervous giggles from the audience and added an almost cartoon-like quality to what is, otherwise, a moving and tragic finale.

Nonetheless, it is an absolute credit to Hume that a production that made its premiere the year I graduated from high school has stood the test of time so unequivocally. For those that have tickets to this sold-out season, you are in for a treat.

Carmen plays His Majesty’s Theatre until 28 July.

Pictured top is Milijana Nikolic (seated), tantalising all with the famous Habanera aria. Photo: James Rogers.

Paull-Anthony Keightley as Zuniga
Paull-Anthony Keightley as Zuniga, with the ‘Carmen’ Children’s Chorus who performed with commendable gusto. Photo: James Rogers.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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