• 03 Apr 2013 /  OPERA, Reviews



    Opening Night – Photo by James Morgan

    When I read Kevin Jackson’s review of Carmen on the Water I thought to myself: what else is there to say? I agree with all his major points, and cannot improve on his translation of those thoughts into words on the page. What he regards as good and important is good and important to me too. Quibbles over some minor matters in the middle about electronic sound –  I hold a different view. As to his views on the varying vocal strengths and weaknesses, especially among some of the lead men, I probably agree. But I decline to go there officially (as have mentioned before) for lack the  art-of-aural expertise. Above all else, it is Mr Jackson’s ravishing praise for Gale Edwards as a director that I whole-heartedly support. And about which I want to say a bit more at the end. In the main – re:  Edwards and her core design team – and the significance of their achievement in taking on this work in this particular way. It’s not against anything Mr Jackson has to say. It’s just that here I take a different tack from Mr Jackson, my own little bit. But I believe my comments will be make more sense after you have had a good read of his review.

    Carmen costume design by Julie Lynch.

    Carmen costume design by Julie Lynch.

    Apart from that, my only contribution to this re-posted post is decorative. The repressed magazine designer in me – also a person who simply loves good pictures –  has added some images of the show in the modest belief they can capture information that cannot always be stuck to the page in words. So here is Mr Jackson’s review with images added by me.


    Posted: 30 Mar 2013 12:52 AM PDT

    Choreography by Kelley Abbey

    Opera Australia presents Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, CARMEN by Georges Bizet.

    All costumes designed by Julie Lynch

    Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) presents its second season, following on from last year’s LA TRAVIATA, with Gale Edwards’ spectacular production of CARMEN by Georges Bizet (1875).

    In the open balmy air of a late Sydney summer, on a stage suspended over the Sydney Harbour foreshore, at the site of the colony’s first farm: Farm Cove (how startled would the ghosts of that first settlement and the indigenous population be tonight?) surrounded by the contemporary skyline of the city of Sydney, with the glowing sails/shells of the Sydney Opera House to one side, in the background, with the passing of harbour ferries and other flotilla, reflecting off the moon struck/lit surface of the harbour waters.

    In keeping with CARMEN’S military theme, HOSH marshalls a veritable army of artists, performers and technical crew, … Regiments include 154 performers kitted out in 284 costumes; 490 staff and crew, together with 50 volunteers. Their arsenal of weaponry includes 1320 metres of LED lighting and two 24-tonne cranes reaching 26 metres in height. While the top brass principals are bunkered down in dressing rooms beneath the stage, the enlisted men and women of the chorus occupy 16 shipping containers set up like barracks beneath the audience seating. At musical HQ, the orchestra pit has been expanded and reinforced to keep the troops happy under the vigilant baton of their musical general.

    Escamillo: another outstanding costume drawing by Julie Lynch

    A spectacle of an opera, indeed. An epic effort of organisation on a scale of shocking dimension and organisational ‘nightmare’ harnessed under the aegis of Ms Edwards. It is a success on almost all value systems.

    SPECTACULAR is the word.

    Brian Thomson’s bull ring

    Brian Thomson has designed a massive abstracted red ringed ‘bull ring’ with a black surfaced (historically, black and red, is, almost, this designer’s signature) raked floor, tipping the cast towards the audience. We see the back side (and, so,back-to-front) huge signage of the name of the opera CARMEN, covered from our point of view, by ladders and platform scaffolding, on which the chorus can look down and participate in the action. The dark outline of a bull sits waiting for its cue to ignite in red neon-like splendour. A centre piece of the upstage of the arena can open hydraulically into a kind of vomitorium, for the entrance and exit of the cigarette girls and patrons of the bullring. Practical, large scale properties – a tank and truck of the era of the Franco war in Spain are craned-in, spectacularly, from opposite sides in act one; as is a large shipping container for the act three warehouse. To capture all of this and support the emotions of the story, the lighting by John Rayment is dramatically bold, matched by costume designer, Julie Lynch, with iconic character splashes of colour:  e.g. blue for the ‘good girl’, Micaela; red for the ‘bad girl’, Carmen and “realisms” of the soldiers uniforms, etc. Clear design solutions for such an epic visual scale problem.

    Installing the Carmen Letters 


     All these photos by James Morgan

    To make this operatic piece work at this location, location, location – imaginative staging is demanded. Ms Edwards triumphs in the first three acts with deft and brilliant organisation of the massive ‘crowd’ scenes. But, even more fortuitously, her skill creates dramatic focus and power in the intimate character scenes as well. In the open air with all of the visual dimension of a Sydney night in one of the most glamorous locations in the world, simply with two actors/singers tied to each other, each at one end of a taut rope, Ms Edwards burns into our concentrated memory retinas the great duet between Carmen and Don Jose in act one – it is one example of unforgettable visual staging and powerful storytelling, that she conjures for us throughout the night. Assisting the impact of the work is the Choreography of Kelley Abbey. The opportunity to use the uncurtained space with the densely atmospheric scoring in Bizet’s music preludes and entra-acts are not wasted by these two artists, but seized excitedly, and a thrilling, and sexually propelling blood pump is given to the performance with dynamic dances and dancers (Mr Bonachela-eat your heart out - DE NOVO!!! ). Even the chorus is managed to move as one – a miracle. That that this does not carry through to the last act after the stunning solo of the flaming red ‘skirt’ (Kate Wormald) with the arrival of the bull fight’s crowd, flags and all is, sadly, anti-climatic (perhaps time became a problem?) Fortunately the music is compensation.

    Rinat Shaham sings, dances and moves as one dreams Carmen to be. A great, daring, sexually explosive performance. Dmytro Popov as the hapless, mummy’s boy, psychopathic killer, Don Jose, grew and grew musically through the opera to great account. Nicole Car sang ‘goody two shoes’ Micaela, beautifully – it is, to my ear, the least interesting music. Andrew Jones was a disappointing Escamillo, for whilst looking the part, he did not have the vocal excitements that the role has to give. He could not either with precision or power match his fellow’s powers. Musically the performance dimmed. I also enjoyed Samuel Dundas as Morales, and Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga, both these men, singing and physically emanating immense sexual power.

    The orchestra hidden beneath the stage, conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, gave a wonderful sound, communicated to us, as were the singers by the electronic wizardry of Tony David Cray. Mr Cray must be worth his weight in gold to Opera Australia for the sound was accomplished, indeed – it matches his work that I heard last year in DIE TOTE STADT. I don’t much like the use of electronically amplified sound – there is no real choice, of course, for work on this scale, and, as I have said, well done here – but when the chorus in act four sing the supporting noise in the ring, contrasting to the drama of the final bloody duet on the stage between Don Jose and Carmen, it did not work at all dramatically. The sound is, though softened, still projected at us, and one is not required to endow the moment with a scintilla of our emotional life. Dramatically, the opera performance begins to go off the boil in this production’s final act, and one is not moved, one simply watches – distanced. The sexual empathy of the deaths of Don Jose and Carmen indicated in the pulsing of Bizet’s score and in the action of the libretto, is not posible. It sounds all too mechanical – too, ironically, dead.

    Rinat Shaham as Carmen – Photo by James Morgan 

    (Diversion: It is my observation that the musical theatre has lost its appealing power as a result of a dependence on the electronic amplification of the singers and the orchestra, (the disaffection from musical theatre began for me with the electronic presentation of the orchestra with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s PROMISES, PROMISES (1968) – remember, that orchestra were in a covered pit too? although, there was a plastic bubble, center-pit, so that the conductor’s head and shoulders could be seen by us!) At the musical theatre today the music is projected AT us.Washing unremittingly, over us, whether we want to hear it or not. No effort is necessary from the audience to engage in any concentrated way. It lands on us unflinchingly. I love it when the performers ‘unplug’ (remember that moment in the Barbara Cook concert at the Lyric Theatre, a few years ago, when, after a long night ofelectronically assisted singing she unplugged for the encores – what a difference in temperature in the audience – how we listened, how we joined Ms Cook in the performance – the contract for listening was changed – it was amazing), and I have noticed when this does occur, all of us audience participants do, lean in to the music, and make a contributive effort to hear the communication. We are invited to work with the unassisted singer/orchestra and real theatrical exchange happens. A Shared Experience.)

    My first introduction to CARMEN was listening to an old 78rpm recording of my dad’s with Lawrence Tibbett, singing on one side of the record, the Toreador Song, from CARMEN, and on the other side, the Te Deum at the end of act one of TOSCA – thrilling. I played it over and over again. I remember the CARMEN JONES (1954) movie musical version with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (sexy film I remember. I was young and probably didn’t know what sexy was, of course! , but I was , strangely, moved) and, perhaps my first full scale opera version of CARMEN was at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1982 with, the only thing I can really recall, the Josef Svoboda design! – I do remember being disappointed. The film based on the Hemingway novel THE SUN ALSO RISES (1957) with Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Ava Gardener and the Pedro Almodovar film, MATADOR (1986) have always evoked the CARMEN story. Bizet’s L’ARLESIENNE SUITE has always thrilled me. THE PEARL FISHERS, except for that duet, always a bit boring. CARMEN in contrast, always a popular choice. That Georges Bizet died at the age of 36 in 1875, on the 33rd performance of this opera is, surely, one of the great tragedies of operatic history.

    Rinat Shaham as Carmen – this time in power red – Photo by James Morgan 

    In the essay in the Handa Production program, Philip Sametz tells us:

    “To put Bizet’s death in perspective, had Verdi died at 36 his final opera would have been LUISA MILLER (1849). No RIGOLETTO, no LA TRAVIATA, no IL TROVATORE – no OTELLO ! At that age Wagner had just completed LOHENGRIN. CARMEN was Bizet’s first masterpiece, and his last work. Even at this remove, it is tempting to speculate on what he might have created with the new-found brilliance that calls out to us from every bar of the score.”

    Nicole Car as Micaela & Dmytro Popov as Don Jose

    The international ABC of the Opera repertoire, box office money makers: A for AIDA; B for LA BOHEME; C for CARMEN. Gale Edwards has for Opera Australia given a cash cow, and, by the way, an acclaimed artistic success, with her recent and present version of LA BOHEME. Now with CARMEN another exemplary artistic success – box office too, it seems, looking around me,  no empty seats on the night I went! And, as well, last year, a critically stunning success for one of the world’s most difficult operatic works, Strauss’ SALOME. Dr Haruhisa Handa, the founding Chairman of The International Foundation for Arts and Culture (IFAC), the major sponsor of this work,  and the Opera Australia Board led by Ziggy Switkowski, with Lyndon Terracini as Artistic Director, must be congratulated for the vision and trusting faith that they have had in this great Australian artist. A for AIDA is the only one of the magic three that Ms Edwards has not yet done for the company, it must be next, I guess. One would be foolish not follow through – for the company and the audience.

    To marshall all this company for this HANDA OPERA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR production of CARMEN, from the smallest contribution to the larger contributions, and succeed, requires an artist of great vision, will, know how, and tenacity. A personality and passion driven by the muses of the theatre.

    Gale Edwards, deserves congratulations.Bravo.

    Brian Thomson and Gale Edwards with the set model and Julie  Lynch’s costume drawing


    As Mr Jackson points out Carman along with La Traviata is one of the world’s most popular operas. And without taking anything away from them artistically as complete works of art, it is easy to not pay attention to the actual stories being told. So popular are the tunes. And what we think is our familiarity with the the stories.Gale Edwards is right, the themes in Carmen are progressive even for today – regarding the status women – and the call to arms for those with the opportunity and strength of character to take on patriarchal dominance. In a very wise artistic decision, Edwards moves the time-setting forward from the 1870s to the time of the Franco’s Spain – let’s just say roughly 1940s. Not only are we closer to the story historically, it offers immense freedoms to the designers and choreographer to apply a very fresh and appealing look.

    What we get from set designer Brian Thomson is the best of his personal aesthetic writ large. Mr Jackson talks of the ‘simple’ bull-ring. The red lettering of the name CARMEN 13-metres high is a shout of feminist power cross the harbour addressed to the citizens of Sydney in general. From the audience’s perspective we get the name in reverse (a classic Thomson device) but also a wall of scaffolding that can easily carry at any one time a great number of the production’s 150 approx performers. And the outline of a bull which comes to life at just the right moment. I also really liked how the  back wall (the scaffolding and the letters) not only served to bounce a lot of the sound back to the audience. And equally, how this year the set blocked any view of the Opera House. That’s a big statement to make. That the SOH, in these circumstances, serves as an unhelpful distraction.And that An Opera Australia production can stand on its own two feet (is that four with the bull?) without having to bow and scrape to the Utzon masterpiece.

    Andrew Jones as toreador Escamillo – Photo by James Morgan

    From designer Julie Lynch a much more sexy Modernist look; and the same goes for Kelley Abbey’s fabulous choreography. From lighting designer, John Rayment you get one of the country’s best (in great modesty) ‘serving’ the work of the other creators. You can see from the pictures that the lighting is incredibly spectacular, but it never serves itself. First and foremost, Rayment brings the work of Edwards, Thomson. Lynch and Abbey life. And when i say life – this is a show brimming with passion and life-force without ever stooping to the banal or obvious.

    Chorus – Photo by James Morgan

    Where I differ from Mr Jackson, is that I loved the sound. That’s mainly because (too many rock concerts when young) I rarely find the sound levels in the Joan Sutherland (Opera) Theatre at the SOH big enough to hold my concentration, and I end up spending most of the time studying the directing and acting. Which is fine but I also want to acknowledge this production’s sound designer, Tony David Cray. Some traditionalists my baulk or have quibbles. It’s like moving from test to  one-day cricket. But for me the amplified sound is not just louder. The clarity is also extraordinary and I was drawn much closer to the the listening bit of opera making – probably its most important feature.

    Clearly great progress has clearly been made in ‘sound’ department  of live stage production. Well I can’t imagine Madonna or U2 settling for anything but better than the best.  I mean – when you think of the conditions – outside, wind, the noises fom the harbour and the city. Also placing the subtitles on the lower rim of the slanted platform stage is a plus, easier to read and you miss less of what’s happening on stage. As for the seating, eating, drinking and bathroom areas, lessons were clearly learnt from last year. In 2012 Ross Wallace did a fabulous job in very difficult circumstances. This year Eamon D’Arcy has been able to make improvements. Like the bathrooms with black & white tiled floors even.

    Dmytro Popov as Don Jose & Rinat Sharam as Carmen

    What I am leading to is this. Even if Carman has strong anti-authoritarian feminist themes, much is gained in the telling of this tale outside like this –  ’writ large’. Not all operas could cope with the expansion. But in this instance, I think Carmen is better told big! It’s not just a story about two men and two women – it’s about the society in which they are trapped. And with size the society becomes a much stronger character in its own right.  I think Carmen is improved played outside like this  - at this size (and quality). The large groups of dancers or soldiers are not just there to fill up space or supply a bit of ‘fun’. They give the characters a much more vivid social context. Opera Australia isn’t slumming it here, trying to pull in a few extra bucks, or offering those untutored in the elegance of attending an opera in the Joan Sutherland Theatre a way in. Just as Slumdog Millionaire took movie-making to a new level in the way it used size and numbers to a purpose. So too here. I don’t think every opera would survive the transition, so I look forward to finding out what the choice is for next year. I also think Opera Australia has found the perfect team. Edwards-Thomson-Lynch in particular are definitely a highly prized unit.  And you would pushed to find another team of three in the world who could pull off with such finesse a production of the size and artistic flair as this.

    Photo by James Morgan

  • 12 Jan 2013 /  News, OPERA, THEATRE


    Okay so there are Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover – and I’ve tried most of ‘em. Ten Green Bottles, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Seven Shades of Gray and there’s even A Hole in the Bucket. Well and good. But how many ways are there to see-in the New Year – say if you’re a Sydneysider. Whether it’s luxury-viewing from a Woseley Road mansion avec staffed/stuffed canapes, an apartment rooftop in Potts Point, a boat on the harbour, Barry Humphries’ private party, Clover Moore’s Mayoral gig on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, or with your head under the doona. That’s just a sprinkle of options.

    The last few years I have been lucky. If you have been following my whereabouts this has included two Clover parties (the floor you are standing on actually shakes when the fireworks explode) and last year I was part of a rent-a-crowd for a wonderful man who lives in an apartment overlooking the city from Macleay St as it curves into Woolloomooloo. This fine 95-year-old retired architect/widower poured champagne into our glasses with the sturdy hand of a man 20 years his younger. And we were there because he wanted to throw a party and mathematically all his friends were dead. We mere 40 to 50-year-olds threw some youth into the room and from his balcony we got the full vista of five different fireworks exploding points. Our host told us that when he first moved into the apartment in 1955 there was only one high-rise building. From his ‘period’ lounge-room he had watched the city grow.

    In a world full of great old cities being bombed to smithereens, or overwhelmed by the homeless and rotting garbage, Sydney is an oasis. Signs of growth are everywhere. Let me segue to my job. Just looking at the plays I am going to see over the next seven days (all home-grown product even if linked to the Sydney Festival program). At Belvoir, there is J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan adapted by Tommy Murphy, directed by Ralph Myers. The next night I’ve got School Dance at STC Wharf One, written for Adelaide’s youth company Windmill by Mathew Whittet, directed by Rosemary Myers, with a cast that includes the deliciously talented Amber McMahon.

    Cast of Windmill’s School Dance

    Then it’s an adaption by Andrew Bovell for the Sydney Theatre Company of Kate Grenville’s fabulous novel, The Secret River, directed by Neil Armfield, playing at the Sydney Theatre with a cast of over twenty. There’s a new show at The Stables, Caleb Lewis’s Rust and Bone at the Stables. And apparently the new annual David  Williamson at the Ensemble is rather good.

     Who gives a toss if this year’s Sydney Festival management has decided to invite only a few reviewers to only a few things. I am happy with my lot of home-grown works. Which is my point. The work we can make by ourselves these days can come together and create a mini-festival without attending anything brought in from overseas. There will be hits and misses, as there always is to with the imported stuff too. But we have evolved so much in the past twenty years as a creative city (given the right support), missing out on some imported shows isn’t as as devastating as it was twenty years ago. Meanwhile pesky reviewers effectively banned. Unless every show is already sold out to the rafters, you would have to wonder what is achieved by keeping the media at bay. See this recent post by me - Alison Croggon Retires from Theatre Notes - about the future of reviewing.

    One of  highlights of the local works is  Opera Australia co-production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball  with probably my favourite company in the world, Barcelona’s La Fura dels Baus (‘The Rats of the Sewer’. I think I’ve survived four of their shows in different places around the world: my entire being hurled into another stratosphere each time.

    Here are some pictures of the production I found on Google. If you have ever thought of taking the leap from theatre into opera land, I don’t think I could more confidently recommend a production (in advance of seeing it myself). Wait for whatever reviews it gets if you like or throw yourself recklessly headlong. These pictures are enough of a draw-card for me. Along with Sydney, La Fura dels Baus is also creating versions of this Masked Ball  with Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires; La Monnaie, Brussels; and Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, Oslo. No doubt the Sydney Festival has helped finance and promote the gig – but given the number of local artists involved (musicians and singers) it is not what you would strictly-speaking call an import.

    I hope I am not giving too much away. To me these pictures serve as a draw-card. Who wouldn’t want to pull money out of their pocket to see what the image below is all about?

    Arriving at last at the main topic of this post: my New Year’s Eve 2012/13! I somehow found myself with two tickets to the OA’s gala night which includes a performance – this year of La Boheme - and then canapes and drinks after which we watch the fireworks from the glassed-in foyer above Clover’s party (or other vantage points). Actually 9pm fire-works at interval and then grog and tastings and idle chat from 10.30 till the bridge and the harbour exploded at midnight into a burst of noise, colour and lights.

    The evening hosted by Kylie Minogue!

  • 12 Jan 2013 /  News, OPERA, THEATRE