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Carmen - Opera Australia

With famous songs, feisty characters, and a dramatic story, Bizet’s Carmen is an iconic opera of passion. Opera Australia's new touring production kindled the fire of anticipation at the Canberra Theatre, with a packed house eager for a new take on this classic.

Director and choreographer Matthew Barclay updates this story of devouring lust by shifting the action to military dictator Franco’s Spain in the 1960s, where clumsy authoritarian police clash against stylish counterculture bikies. Policeman Don José (Iain Henderson) becomes an outlaw out of love for the lusty wanderer Carmen (Angela Hogan), only to seek revenge after she spurns him for the charismatic bullfighter Escamillo (Haotian Qi).

The change of period gives Carmen’s wandering heart political heft, with her free love a political revolt against a state that commands women to submit and serve.

For set and costume designer Anna Cordingley the update is a gift, and her postcard designs drip flair and nostalgia, while staying true to the exotic spirit of the music.

This fresh vision for Carmen should energise this often-performed opera. However the production never feels exciting or dangerous.

While the music is beautifully sung, the characters lack vitality. Henderson’s Don José is a joyless sad sack who limps through his own seduction with weary fatalism. Hogan’s Carmen has saucy wiliness, but seems to pursue José out of empty caprice rather than mercurial lust. Haotian Qi’s Escamillo by contrast is friendly and understanding, but not sexually magnetic.

Overall, the characters seemed more eager to progress the plot than to enjoy the rapture of the fleeting moment.

Danita Weatherstone as Micaela, Don José’s too-forgiving finance, gave an otherwise flat character vibrant life with a tender vocal performance.

Lighting design by Paul Jackson played off Anna Cordingley’s designs well, with parched reds that conveyed both the thirst for sensation and eddying danger.

Although the production does not completely realise its best ideas, Carmen is an exceptional opera, and Opera Australia performs the difficult music with impressive dexterity. Even if this Carmen does not intoxicate, audiences are still likely to leave the theatre humming the Habanera.

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