Reviews/Music/Opera/Perth Festival

Opera stars in the outfield

26 February 2023

With world-class performances and a stunning if unusual setting, WA Opera’s Carmen should help find the genre new audiences, writes Bourby Webster.

Carmen, West Australian Opera
WACA Ground, 25 February 2023

Bizet’s Carmen is undoubtedly a masterwork in the genre. Huge choruses, stunning arias, love, passion and betrayal in equal measure – this opera has it all. 

WA Opera’s presentation of the work, under the stars in a venue revered for its cricket stars, hits some impressive heights, transforming the WACA Ground into a theatrical arena showcasing a plethora of incredible local talent.

The postponement of the opera a year ago due to COVID restrictions has given the singers an extra 12 months to “live” with their roles, and it shows. The performances are without exception high quality.

I was, however, curious to see how the open spaces of a cricket ground could replace the intimacy of an opera theatre and maintain the sound quality.

I need not have worried. The large stage, backed by huge screens to replace the usual sets, is placed close to the grandstand where patrons are seated, providing that important sense of intimacy with the action, as well as an impressive backdrop. The stadium lighting towers are burning red, as are Optus Stadium and the swans of Matagarup Bridge across the river, creating a fiery Spanish-themed backdrop on an impressive scale. It is, frankly, breathtakingly beautiful.

Seated directly opposite the stage, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra players fill the void between patrons and performers. Dane Lam’s conducting is entrancing, with the intensity, clarity and musicality drawing wonderful energy from the musicians. 

Carmen. A bearded man in military uniform
Paul O’Neill shines in the role of Don Jose. Photo: Scott Slawinski/Base Imagery

James Hewgill’s work on sound must be applauded – we lose none of the subtlety of a live orchestra in his authentic amplification. Andrew Nicholson’s flute solos early in the second half are a standout. The standing ovation for the orchestra at the end is well deserved.

Under Stuart Maunder’s direction, the huge cast of soloists, chorus and children’s chorus mill about, dancing and drinking, filling the stage and relaying the story well.

Ashlyn Tymms is flawless and feisty as Carmen, embodying the passion and spirit of her gypsy girl character. She falls for Escamillo (the only non-WA-based singer, José Carbo is another standout for his power and passion). In doing so, she shuns her lover, Don José, sung by Paul O’Neill in what this reviewer believes to be his best performance yet.

O’Neill may have been born for this role. His genuine angst at losing his beloved Carmen draws sympathy as well as disdain.

The smaller roles, sung by WA Opera regular soloists and rising stars alike, are on form and full of character. The vocal quality of Prudence Sanders in the role of Micaëla is particularly spellbinding.

Only one element causes a break in my attention – the first moment when the Spanish opera, set in Spain and sung in French, switches into English dialogue with Aussie accents. It is an odd jolt, but only momentary, and I adapt quickly to the mix. In addition, the volume of the dialogue could be higher, as occasionally the spoken words are lost. 

However, the world-class singing, powerful chorus, and the thrilling “big hits” of Habanera and Toreador’s Song make up for minor technical issues. And a “wow” moment with fireworks, flags and full company on stage for the opening chorus of Act 4 totally dissipates any misgivings I have about the relevance of a story in which men clearly dominate women.

Seeing Carmen in this format makes clear why Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour events, which regularly take theatrical pieces outdoors, are such a success. If WA Opera continues to present productions of this quality and scale in such an accessible format, the genre is bound to grow in popularity in Western Australia, using our stunning landscape and climate as one of the world’s most beautiful operatic stages.

WA Opera returns to His Majesty’s Theatre for Into The Woods, 23 March-1 April 2023

Pictured top: Ashlyn Tymms brings passion to the role of Carmen. Photo by Scott Slawinski/Base Imagery

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the director of North Street Music – a creative production and artist development company. She is also the founder of Perth Symphony Orchestra. She is a graduate of Oxford University, the Royal College of Music and has an MBA from UWA. She is a professional violist, entrepreneur, concert promoter and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

Past Articles

  • Masterful soloists lift the mood

    WASO’s latest program promises intensity but Bourby Webster is surprised by its sense of optimism – and fun. So much so, she could do it all again.

  • Sure hands touch the heart

    Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has been wowing audiences around the world for almost 60 years and this concert is no exception. Bourby Webster savours every moment. 

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