Gina Fairley

There is no arguing that repeated standing ovations captured the audience’s response to Opera Australia’s Carmen, which was rolled out again this week.

The Opera Australia's 2018 revival of Carmen. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Carmen – it could almost be considered the blockbuster of opera, along with La Boheme and The Magic Flute. And, despite being rolled out as a new production in 2016 (created by theatre icon John Bell to launch the 2016 Winter Season) and again last year for Handa Opera on the Harbour, it would seem that audiences are not yet tired of this sassy Spanish diva.


Opening night, over the weekend, ended with an almost riotous explosion of standing ovations – first for Australian Stacey Alleaume in the role of Micaëla, then Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente for his performance as Don José, and Israeli mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham in her signature role as Carmen.

Joining those standing was the young woman sitting next to me, despite her attention being more attached to her social media feed during the performance, repeatedly checking it with an annoying glow.

Perhaps it is a testament to the fact that opera has made it into the 'experience economy' and is attracting much broader, and younger audiences – a new demographic that dispels the worn old label of opera as elitist.

I am all for that new wave of experience and enthusiasm – obviously sans iPhone – and Carmen certainly delivers that popular hook with this stellar cast and revival Bell production, delivered this year at the hands of Roger Press.

2018 revival production of John Bell's Carmen, Opera Australia. Photo credit: Prudence Upton

Just as memorable as its ear-worm inciting tunes – Carmen’s Habanera (Love is a rebellious bird) from Act 1 or Escamillo’s Toreador Song from Act 2 – are Teresa Negroponte’s costume designs that explode on stage in full colour. They carry a large portion of the credit for this production’s success.

They are further animated by Kelley Abbey’s choreography, which fleshes out desires, intrigues and sensuality, and Bell’s subtle and often tongue-in-check touches that provide this classic opera with a contemporary connection. At one point the chorus gathered for a 'selfie', the angelic voices of the boys' choir is offset by styling them as a hip-hop street gang, and in Act 1 Micaëla enters on stage with a 'wheely-bag' in tow.

Likewise, Scott-Mitchell’s static village square allowed for great flexibility – at moments across the production a kombi van and truck entered onstage, adding that ripple of awe across the audience.

This is opera for today. But was the high-voltage energy of this production’s staging matched by the delivery of its libretto?

Marcelo Puente as Don José and Rinat Shaham as Carmen in the 2018 revival production of John Bell's Opera Australia production; Photo credit: Prudence Upton

Buy in talent offers freshness and audience pull

The two lead roles in this year’s Carmen production are 'imports' – big imports that guarantee the return of opera loyalists. Rinat Shaham is described as ‘one of the world most acclaimed Carmens since her debut in the role at the Glyndebourne Festival, 2004’. Over the ensuing 13 years she has performed the role in Berlin, Munich, Rome, Montreal, Miami, Tel Aviv, New York, New Orleans, Cologne, Toronto and Vancouver.

It is not surprising, then, that she received a standing ovation – her vocal range certainly delivered and was beyond compare. But I am one of those tetchy critics who want my Carmen to be sizzling. A flick of a skirt or a slap of a thigh just isn’t enough. It actually surprised me, given her celebrity in the role, that Shaham felt a little stiff in portraying the level of fiery sensuality expected.

It was perhaps magnified by the fact that Italian mezzo soprano Jose Maria Lo Monaco nailed Carmen so comfortably on the Harbour last year – she was a veritable spitfire, swishing her hips and stomping barefooted; strong-willed, she seduced not only the men on stage but the audience with her free-spirited portrayal.

This is the danger of staging productions so close together – audiences remember and compare.

Marcelo Puente as Don José was performed impeccably – dramatically and vocally, intense and clear. I was among those to jump to my feet with shouts of 'bravo, bravo'. What made it all the more sincere was Puente seeming genuinely touched by the audience’s appreciation of his performance.

It feels like an uncanny repeat of the 2016 production. I wrote at the time of Clémentine Margaine in the lead as Carmen: ‘Reflecting back on this production, it is not Carmen but rather Don José who is the real star. It feels inappropriately billed.’

Local talent Stacey Alleaume delivered a stunning role as Micaëla, blending innocence and strength, duty and love – her wholesome devotion to Don José was matched in tone with her sweet vocal delivery.


Stacey Alleaume as Micaëla in the 2018 revival production of John Bell's Carmen, Opera Australia. Photo Prudence Upton

Jane Ede returned as Carmen’s gypsy friend Frasquita, again delivered with great vocal vibrancy and stage presence. But her pairing with Agnes Sarkis as Mercedes was a little unbalanced, her shine dulled slightly by the strength of Ede’s performance.

Michael Honeyman also returned in this revival production in his splashy and well-staged role as the bullfighter Escamillo, while the sleazy lieutenant Zuniga was performed by Richard Anderson.

Overall, there were few dips or dull moments across this three-hour opera. It is quickly becoming a well-oiled production and one that will be a highlight in the company’s history.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen and Marcelo Puente as Don José in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of Carmen at the Sydney Opera House. Photo credit: Prudence Upton

Does the 2017 revival trump Bell’s 2016 production?

I was lucky enough to review John Bell’s Cuban-inspired production of Carmen when it was unveiled in June 2016. It’s unveiling was serendipitously timed as global embargoes were lifted and cruise-liners started to line Havana’s port that year. 

Today, whether the backdrop is more traditionally Spanish or Cuban inspired seems indifferent. Rather is it the production’s capacity to tap into the spirit of its writing, yet bridge to contemporary audiences.

Overall, the lead roles were stronger this year, reiterated by the opening night ovations for Shaham, Puente and Alleaume. It makes for the argument that opera is very much a global medium. Just as these leads were 'shopped in' as the best, so too our Australian artists perform internationally. It is a win-win that continues to enrich the medium on local shores.

It is curious, however, that Carmen was returned to the repertoire so quickly, especially with its run on the Harbor last year – even though it was an earlier production revival – and furthermore, given the kerfuffle surrounding the integrity of that production.

In the week of its opening, the director of the 2013 production, Gale Edwards, spoke out, along with set designer Brian Thomson and costume designer Julie Lynch, about the lack of artistic consultation on the Handa remounting.

Read: Opera furore rages on as creatives decry Carmen changes

And, with the high visibility marketing that surrounds the Harbour event, one might have imagined that Carmen was a 'done that' option to shelve for a couple of years.

But clearly, there is still huge capacity in the opera blockbuster. Bell’s Carmen hits the 'must see' button – it’s full of affairs, betrayal, jilted lovers, impassioned death, colour and spectacular, and also has the contemporary inflection to appeal to new audiences. What more could one want?

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars

Carmen by Georges Bizet
An Opera Australia production
Director: John Bell
Revival Director: Roger Press
Conductor: Carlo Goldstein
Costume designer: Teresa Negroponte
Set designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell
Lighting designer: Trent Suidgeest
Lighting realised by David Parsons
Choreography: Kelley Abbey

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
10 February – 23 March 2018

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.