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Truly beautiful music and singing characterise Melbourne Opera's new production of perennial crowd pleaser Carmen.
Approaching its tenth anniversary, Melbourne Opera continues to thrive, having presented three solidly entertaining operas this year. A hallmark of this latest offering is the depth of Melbourne Opera's talent pool, which has provided two rotating casts of comparable strength and attraction. Indeed, disappointment at the announcement of the indisposition of Herald Sun Aria winner Lee Abrahmsen was soon forgotten due to the stellar performance of alternate Micaela Kerry Gill, shining as a late opening night replacement for not the first time in her career at Melbourne Opera.
The Athenaeum Theatre is surely one of the most thrilling venues to hear live opera in Australia. The relatively intimate size allows the audience to feel the power of the brass and percussion and to appreciate every note with sterling clarity. From the first oom-pah of the well-known overture, conducted at a clipping pace by maestro Greg Hocking, it is clear that it is to be an evening of wonderful music. Chorus preparation by Bill Bamford is equally strong, achieving a very pleasant tone and coloured by varying dynamics. The children's chorus are quite charming.
Set design by Andrew Bellchambers places the action in front of a neutral curved wooden wall ahead of an elevated walkway. Scott Allan's lighting design bathes a rear cyclorama in glowing yellow for the hot Seville sun and midnight blue for the tavern scene. Lighting is particularly effective for the gypsy camp, in which the principals are subtly highlighted against the shadowy backdrop.
The English translation certainly aids understanding of the story, even though some of the beauty is lost by not using the original French lyrics. The diction is especially crisp and clear from all singers, although the context is undermined somewhat by the mixture of Australian accents in the spoken dialogue.
Dimity Shepherd has a remarkably full and rich mezzo-soprano voice, which is used to great effect in bringing the hypnotic melodies of Carmen to life. Suitably strident and vivacious throughout, Shepherd's presence anchors the opera drives the action. Jason Wasley plays Don Jose with quiet authority, portraying the smoldering passion of Jose with subtlety. His prayer-like "Flower Song" is a touching moment indeed.
In strong voice, Simon Meadows is a confident Escamillo, his enjoyment of the dashing role shining through. The aforementioned Gill brings the house down with "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante". Angela Hogan and Caroline Vercoe provide glamorous support as Frasquitta and Mercedes.
Finally, what cast would not benefit from the extraordinary professionalism, class and experience of Roger Howell (Zuniga) and Ian Cousins (Dancairo).
Carmen plays selected dates at the Athenaeum Theatre until 13 November, with a performance at Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on 26 November. It will go on to tour southeast Australia in 2012. Lovers of Bizet's divine music will find plenty to enjoy.