Thursday, 6 April 2017

Carmen - the exotic Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

There is something special happening on the waters of Sydney Harbour at the moment. It is the annual Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. I was fortunate to see this years production of Carmen last week.

Carmen is the famous opera written by Georges Bizet. He died at the age of 36, just 3 months after the premier performance of Carmen.

The story of Carmen is set in Spain and revolves around two women and two men. Carman (Josè Maria Lo Monaco) a gypsy woman, and the men that love her. The opposing men in this opera are Don José (Andeka Gorrotxategi) an army soldier, and Escamillo (Luke Gabbedy) a Spanish Bullfighter. Micaëla (Natalie Aroyan) is Don José’s fiancee. (Due to the intensity of the singing involved in this opera a different set of singers perform on alternating nights.)

This is the second time I have seem Carmen on the harbour, so this time I had a better understanding of the story line and its themes. The opera is about love, lust, jealousy, seduction, rebellion, war, trust, mistrust and freedom. I have come to the realisation that none of the lead characters in Carmen are what I would call nice people. They are just out for themselves, and try to get what they want for their own satisfaction by any means. 

Carmen has been imaginatively updated to a later time period than it was first set in. This production is set in Spain in the early 1900s during a time of uprising and protest. This has allowed the costumes designers to present a wonderful range of more modern costumes that you would otherwise not see at an opera. The ladies costumes look modern and colorful. They would equally look as good as fashions on the field at the Melbourne Cup.

The opera takes place on a specially built stage on the harbour banks at Mrs Macquarie's Point. The 44 members of the Opera Australia Orchestra play live seated on a floating platform under the sloping circular stage. The stage is on the water in front of the audience seated on tiered seating. The raised tiers of the seating gives all the audience a good view of what is happening on the stage.

The harbour setting of the opera is spectacular. I suggest getting there early and watch the sun go down over the harbour before the opera commences. Once darkness comes the stage has as its backdrop the lit up Sydney CBD buildings, the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Luna Park. The stars twinkle above the stage and the occasional ferry traverses the harbour.

There are various Spanish styled food and beverage outlets set up within the Carmen enclosure. These are open before the opera starts and at interval. Make a night of it!

The sets and props on the stage are minimal in order to highlight the opera singers. Huge cranes lower and lift an army tank, truck, and container. Drums with fires lit in them ring the stage. The backdrop is the reverse side of huge 9-metre letters spelling out CARMEN. They have 1,750 red lightbulbs blazing on them at various moments of the opera.  The opera relies on effective lighting to emphasize the mood of the scenes with various colors and intensities.

The best part of Carmen is the burst of fireworks above the stage one hour into the first half of the opera. Spectacular!
The music is exotic Spanish music that makes you want to join in. The catchy tunes of the dance numbers accompanied by castanets are very toe tapping. 

Carmen has a huge cast of 78 very talented people, including 14 principals, 16 dancers, 40 Chorus members and 8 actors. Apart from the amazing singing of the leads in Carmen, the Opera Australia Chorus sounds superb in the quieter and more robust sone numbers. For an outdoor venue, the sound amplification adequately brings the louder and softer moments in clear detail to the audience. This has been achieved by using a grand total of 223 speakers.

Even if you have not seen Carmen, you will probably recogonize two of the songs - 'Habanera' and 'Toreador'. These have been used in various movies, tv shows, and commercials. (Remember the B&D Roll A Door ad?)  Carmen is performed in French with English and Simplified Chinese subtitles to help you follow what is being sung about.

Carmen is a definite must to go along and see. If you are new to opera, you will enjoy this exotic performance on the harbour. If you have seen Carmen before you will enjoy it once again in this revival production.

Carmen  Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Performing: until 23 April
Presented by: Opera Australia
Running time: approximately 2 hours & 45 minutes, including one 35-minute interval.
Tickets: $299.00, $229.00, $149.00, $99.00
Where: Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney, NSW, Australia

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