Ian Goes to an Opera. On water!

I think it’s fair to say that the Handa Opera on the Harbour- Opera Australia’s annual outing to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair- is somewhat of a cultural tourism juggernaut (to the extent that the surtitles are also presented in Mandarin). It is in almost every measure an overwhelming enterprise, from the spectacular location looking back across the water to the city skyline, opera house and bridge to the astonishing infrastructure that has to come for a month then disappear again. It is also very much priced as a premium experience to match, so it was a delightful Christmas treat when my boyfriend’s parents gifted us two tickets to this year’s Carmen.

I had some thoughts! What follows is- full warning- not a review.

The singing and orchestra all sounded good. The mixing for the essential amplification was 99% well done with only one noticeable glitch, and it also allowed some of the orchestral colours that are usually lost in a theatre to shine. I wondered if, because of the amplification, the singers were able to relax their voices a bit so the sound was much more effortless than usually heard in an opera auditorium. I heard the second cast- there was no free cast sheet or any indication on who was singing (which is a rare oversight in this experience)- according to the website I heard Sian Pendry, Arnold Rutkowski, Michael Honeyman and Stacey Alleaume in the four principal roles conducted by Brian Castles-Onion. This production was originally directed by Gale Edwards with set by Brian Thomson, costumes by Julie Lynch and lighting by John Rayment. The remount was staged by Andy Morton.

Also, this is the kind of thing which requires a certain amount of visual spectacle and razzle dazzle and surprise so, um, spoiler alert? Onwards!

Opera on the Harbour is not the sort of stage where a director should be encouraged to explore deep psycho-sexual subtleties. Not only for the vast sightlines required, but also because one has to compete with one of the loveliest evening vistas in the world. Sensibly, this was a show based on big gestures with oodles of flouncing, an abundance of dramatic arms, flag twirling, tongues of fire and the like. The audaciousness of it all is thrilling- many in the audience giggled happily at the sight of the massive cranes swinging in trucks and tanks over the water to the platform and the surprise appearance of Escamillo floating in the night sky was greeted with gleeful applause. Even the fireworks- mandatory for any Sydney harbour event and to hell with any sense of dramatic flow- weirdly inserted after the iconic Votre toast (Toreador) had me grinning like an idiot. Any nuance seemed largely limited to having Carmen and Don Jose pace around like caged tigers, or Carmen physically mounting the poor dweeb to demonstrate her dominance. But this is as it should be for this format.

Carmen is an opera I adore. It’s construction, and wall to wall tunes, is pretty much ideal. There are very few longueurs- and in this production even less as they sensibly cut the charming but pointless urchins and almost all of the dialogue. The perfect sense of pacing is one of the reasons why the piece works as well as it does. There is minimal character development- Carmen is always fiercely independent, Don Jose always vaguely pathetic, Escamillo always full of bravado and Micaela always a cipher. The various couplings among this foursome have minimal set up or explanation. Don Jose loves Carmen because he just does. Carmen now loves Escamillo because she tells us so. That’s it. I sometimes think that this tool is overlooked by contemporary opera composers to their detriment. The ability for a composer to say ‘these people are now in love because I say so, and here is the music to convincingly support that’ is perhaps the most powerful one we have.

Of course the big tunes (and, you guys, there are SO MANY) are glorious- though we could probably do with a smidge less Votre toast– but I’m always chuffed at some of the smaller moments in Bizet’s writing such as the brawl between the cigarette girls, the mountain marching music and the way the fate motif, to use the memorable words of former ROH deputy chairman Denis Forman, surprises like an ‘icy douche’ among all the vibrant colour. Bizet also doesn’t seem to get the snaps he should get for his choral writing- the opening of Act IV is great fun and in his other key work, Pearl Fishers, he also has a neat hand in the ‘an execution, what jolly good fun’ genre.

One of the few flaws, and this is something I consistently get disproportionately annoyed about, is the typical obsession with having Carmen and her gal pals hiking around the mountains with their smuggling chums in full-on spangly flamenco skirts. I don’t know why directors and designers nearly universally insist on this. Edwards also stages the entr’actes, which is something that usually irritates me, but if one is going to insert over-the-top flamenco in a giant frock with shirtless lads before a bullfight and fight to the death, this is the right stage to do it on.

A word on the curtain calls. Firstly, the vastness of the outdoor setting makes the applause sound excessively muted. Nothing to done about this of course, but it must be weirdly dispiriting for the cast until they get used to it. There was also an excessive scramble out of the seats during the curtain calls- gotta beat the parking rush!- which I find one of the rudest things an audience can do in any live performance. In my perfect theatre, this would be punished by taser-armed ushers (sidebar, when I was a wee student usher at QPAC, the WORST behaving audience in this regard were the blue rinse set at the Wednesday matinee who, no matter what was happening onstage, would seemingly respond to some internal alarm set for 4pm and make for the exits to beat rush hour).

So in the final scorecard BOO for not having any free indication of who was performing (like, you could even put it in the pre-show surtitles after thanking all the sponsors et al) and BOO for the sour sight of everyone dashing for the carpark as soon as the bows started. However, big YAY for the unashamed spectacle and YAY for the general slickness and high professionalism of this audacious outside adventure.