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New Zealand Opera's Carmen radiates menace and sexual tension

Tom Randle as Don José and Nino Surguladze as Carmen.

Director Lindy Hume tells us upfront to expect an edgy, unconventional production of one of the world’s favourite operas. As we take our seats in Wellington’s St James Theatre, we’re part of the story: the curtain, already raised, reveals shabby, roughcast walls of the set. The cast silently assemble on the brightly lit stage, confronting the audience in insolent challenge. The overture reminds us of all those wonderful tunes, but the cast seem to say, “We’re real. Life is brutal.” As they turn and leave, a few principals remain and finally just one woman, staring us down. Is this Carmen? What is she thinking?

From the beginning, themes of male menace and tension between the sexes vibrate from the stage. The innocent Micaëla, played with emotional authenticity by Emma Pearson, is abused by soldiers but stands up for herself. The cigarette workers are no chorus of colourful Spanish señoritas; these are real women, dressed in muted tones, weary after their sweltering shifts.

Carmen’s entrance brings, as always, a fiery spark to the stage, but Nino Surguladze portrays a many-sided heroine, sultry and seductive, her emotions seething under the surface. Her dark complexity is matched by a dramatic voice, rich and colourful with an almost contralto quality at times. Don José and other men are captivated – and so is the audience.

Tom Randle as Don José and Nino Surguladze as Carmen.

Musically and theatrically, this well-designed production offers many pleasures. The singers in minor roles sparkle in snappy well-matched ensembles. Amelia Berry and Kristin Darragh are brilliantly provocative as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès . All the chorus work is vigorous and electric and the well-drilled children’s chorus a cheeky delight. Orchestra Wellington is splendid under the baton of Francesco Pasqualetti, although some pedestrian tempi occasionally slow the action.

Australian James Clayton as the toreador Escamillo sets the stage alight in his signature Act 2 aria; he’s believably Carmen’s soulmate. We have to work harder to believe in the love between her and the hapless Don José, played by Tom Randle. His ringing tenor fills the role, but he is not quite the handsome yet inexperienced young hero ripe for seduction and, as with Carmen, he’s a little irritating at times.

Act 4 balances the opening with another startlingly lit crowd scene. This time, we are in the toreador parade, as chorus members assemble on the front of the stage, an audience singing, cheering and waving to us. A ruined Don José glowers briefly from the edge.

The production ends with real passion as the versatile set closes in on the doomed lovers and we feel a final frisson of terror as we see there is no escape for Carmen from her fate.

Carmen, by Georges Bizet, New Zealand Opera, Auckland, June 22-July 1; Christchurch, July 13-22.

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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