You can take the girl out of Seville . . .

CARMEN

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday May 4

                                     Stacey Alleaume

You’re pressed to put your finger on significant faults in the national company’s opening salvo for the Melbourne Autumn season, yet the net result doesn’t satisfy as much as you’d want it to do.  The Carmen, Rinat Shaham, is gifted with a full-bodied mezzo range and she plays her role well enough, if not distinctively.  Her Jose, Dmytro Popov, gets all the notes and is an assertive enough figure, even in that drawn-out final duet.  Shane Lowrencev is a competent Escamillo, his big number ringingly confident.  Our heroine’s gypsy/smuggler cohorts – Jane Ede (Frasquita), Sian Pendry (Mercedes), Dancairo (Luke Gabbedy), Remendado (Benjamin Rasheed) –  handle the middle act ensembles with gusto and reliability.   Even the principal soldiers – Christopher Hillier as Morales, Adrian Tamburini playing Zuniga – work through their parts with unswerving directness.

But the only time you felt that something exceptional was taking place occurred during that difficult Act 3 aria, Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante when the night’s Micaela, Stacey Alleaume, gave a flawless interpretation that clearly woke up a house that till that point was polite but not off its collective face with enthusiasm.   Yes, you could quibble with some of Alleaume’s breathing decisions but the careful construction of the lyric and her treatment of its melodic arches were not only memorable, but as good as I’ve heard live.

The opera’s last real solo made as good a high-point as any for the night, although its usual reception is often to be under-rated; after all, Micaela is the only decent character in the whole work and she can cast a pallid shadow in the middle of so much passion and nationalistic colour.   But Alleaume’s success was obvious, especially at curtain-call time when her appearance was greeted by the closest thing a first-night Melbourne audience comes to a roar of approbation.

Shaham’s Carmen follows the usual path.  She’s physically attractive, dominates the Habanera scene very well, handles her duets with Popov successfully enough, although there seemed to be a hesitant moment when a cue was dropped at the point in Act IV when Don Jose gives up the wimping appeals and turns violent.   Her fault. his fault? I wasn’t quick enough to pick it up.   But the best part of Shaham’s reading came early; her L’amour est un oiseau rebelle made deft work of an all-too-familiar aria, but her Seguidilla proved to be vocally distinctive and well-pitched – I don’t mean just the notes’ placement but the nice mix of sultriness and pseudo-innocence that constitutes Carmen’s quick-moving seduction of Don Jose.

Later, the brilliantly atmospheric opening to Act 2, Les tringles des sistres tintaient, worked to fine effect vocally, while the staging and choreography walked a distracting uninspired path.   Even Carmen’s sudden change of character into a freedom-fighter came over without generating too much scepticism.  But the Act 3 card scene, where Carmen takes over for the solo En vain pour eviter, the pace slowed to an improbable adagio, sucking out the music’s fluency and this section’s tragic resignation to the inevitable.   Shaham gave excellent work in the vituperation of the last act’s closing stages where the semi-erotic posturing of the previous three acts has no place, but the same can be said of many another Carmen that the company has given us.

Popov impressed in Act 1 for his straightforward delivery, even if he faced the same problem as every Don Jose in making his rapid fall from grace an occasion of general disbelief suspension.  His tenor is solid, stentorian rather than elegant, as evident in his Act 1 duet with Micaela, Ma mere, je la vois, where Alleaume turned into an emphatic second fiddle.   His La fleur que tu m’avais jetee had everything but suppleness; even the climactic top note wasn’t the usual bellow you get from many another singer.   But the duel scene with Escamillo held little suggestion of danger from either singer and Popov, while convincing in his communication of despair at the end, missed out on communicating the fierce brutality of murdering Carmen; equipped vocally to invest this duet with force and energy, the tenor failed to impress as deranged and heartbroken at what he has done.

One of the night’s successes emerged in the delicious Nous avons en tete une affaire quintet where the vocal combination came across as precise and well-judged, Jane Ede’s soprano occasionally riding without unnecessary force above the others.   Lowrencev’s big Votre toast number worked well enough; its refrain is difficult to freshen up but this bass-baritone refrained from bellowing.  The trouble with his characterization was its lack of spark; the invitation in Act 3 to his upcoming corrida sounded perfunctory, even when he got specific with Carmen.

Brian Castles-Onion conducted Orchestra Victoria and, the louder the forces involved, the better the score sounded..  To general gratification, the ensemble’s horns acquitted themselves very creditably in exposed passages, but every so often a fault marred the good work: a missed flute note in one of the entr’actes, an off-kilter upper string phrase, some heavy vibrato from the cellos, an over-egged percussion during choruses.

Teresa Negroponte’s costumes concentrated on unsubtle bubble-gum colours: pink, orange, greens of various shades, purple.  Both adult and children’s choruses were dressed in a contemporary fashion, the latter looking as though they could have stepped off any street corner in Melbourne.  These bodies’ singing was solid in delivery, the males tending to hog the limelight, but then they are the force that sets the opera’s tone right from the opening scene.

Michael Scott Mitchell has constructed a touring set, a three-wall frame that could fit anywhere and doesn’t change throughout the opera.  A truck features in three acts – Lillas Pastia’s easily transportable tavern, then the contraband conveyance, finally the triumphal dais at the entrance of Escamillo and Carmen for their four lines of love declaration. Mitchell’s stage is on two planes with some connecting stairs along the stage’s length; this only proved a problem at one point in the last act where things were in danger of coming adrift between singers on the upper level and the pit.

Director John Bell has re-situated the opera’s locale to ‘somewhere resembling today’s Havana’.  As it’s only a semblance, he can gloss over references to Seville in the libretto.  Why Havana?  Because he knows it and he enjoys ‘the audience’s shock of recognition’ (of Havana, that much visited city?) and ‘the dramatic tension between a contemporary vision and an older text’  –  which is fine if difficult to achieve when dealing with a work so much wedded to its original place in both words and music.

Bell also wanted to avoid the ‘traditional . . .  flamenco dancers, gypsies and toreadors’. Sadly, a lot of these remain, although I have to admit the dancers have been replaced  –  by four couples who specialize in a New York-style 50s latter- day jitterbug, co-existing with stretches of languorous leg movements, stylized sexual gestures reminiscent of a camped-up tango club, and some aimless gesturing from the non-dancing chorus.   More Havanian relevance comes to Bell with the findings that ‘it’s hot, it’s Spanish, it’s sexy, and right now seems to be flavour of the month’.   Much the same –  hot, sexy, Spanish – could be said about Mexico and the Philippines, but flavour of the month?   It was heading that way with the recent relaxation of  restrictions but any recover from its Castro-era greyness (or jungle greenness} will be a long while coming.  As, I suspect, will a meaningful influx of tourists.

But these are all accidents of performance, attempts to set a scene and sustain it.  You’d have to work hard to find Cuba in this production; you might just as well look to Buenos Aires or Bogota for a locale positioning.  Sadly, to my mind the city that came to mind most was Miami – clashing colours piled on and juxtaposed, old-time honky-tonk eroticism, rank depression in this nether-world behind a Mar-a-Largo facade.

But what you don’t get is any sense of urgent menace and, without that, the opera suffers considerably.

As for what the principals and chorus actually do, you won’t find much difference here to any other Carmen.  There’s an absence of crowds to populate the opening scene’s plaza; the official parade of the last act is not on-stage but in the audience, the chorus looking out at us as a poor substitute for the spectacle they’re observing.   But it’s in the principals’ activity that you look for some freshness of approach and I, for one, found not much.  Bell has not caused any chance of a frisson of outrage or excitement to interfere with his production; by its underlying staidness, it is probably for some a reassurance, for others a disappointment.

The work will be performed at 7:30 pm on May 6, 11, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26 and at 1 pm on May 13.   As far as I can see, the cast remains unchanged.