New Zealand Opera's Carmen radiates menace and sexual tension

by Elizabeth Kerr / 22 June, 2017

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.


Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now


Latest

The debate over the Serena Williams controversy was a dialogue of the deaf
96659 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Sport

The debate over the Serena Williams controversy wa…

by Paul Thomas

Serena Williams’ US Open outburst was unbecoming but the umpire made a mess of his response.

Read more
The classical blokes saluting unsung women composers
96670 2018-09-21 14:16:06Z Music

The classical blokes saluting unsung women compose…

by The Listener

The suffrage celebrations get a soundtrack from all-male ensemble NZTrio.

Read more
Labour MPs stand behind Jacinda Ardern's action on Meka Whaitiri
96630 2018-09-21 07:31:30Z Politics

Labour MPs stand behind Jacinda Ardern's action on…

by Gia Garrick

The public will have to wait to see a report into an assault claim against MP Meka Whaitiri, who was yesterday stripped of her ministerial portfolios.

Read more
A year of dangerous thinking: What's really behind the free speech circus
96551 2018-09-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

A year of dangerous thinking: What's really behind…

by Anthony Byrt

Metro writer Anthony Byrt looks at how a handful of extremists and “public intellectuals” are making money from manufactured moral outrage.

Read more
Tom Scott's Avantdale Bowling Club is a sharp insight into life in Auckland
96621 2018-09-21 00:00:00Z Music

Tom Scott's Avantdale Bowling Club is a sharp insi…

by Gary Steel

Tom Scott's new album, Avantdale Bowling Club, is a celebration of a kind, an expansive paean to the place that raised him and where he belongs.

Read more
Breaking bread with The Dusty Apron: The secret to the perfect loaf
Does the Norton Core router deliver? Plus 5 tips for home network security
96675 2018-09-21 00:00:00Z Tech

Does the Norton Core router deliver? Plus 5 tips f…

by Peter Griffin

A look at the Norton Core secure router, and five tips for home network security.

Read more
Labour MP Meka Whaitiri stripped of ministerial portfolios
96626 2018-09-20 15:50:21Z Politics

Labour MP Meka Whaitiri stripped of ministerial po…

by Jo Moir

Labour MP Meka Whaitiri has been stripped of her ministerial portfolios but remains an MP.

Read more