Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Carmen from Sydney Harbour

A special deferred relay performance by arrangement with CinemaLive and Opera Australia
at The FeckenOdeon on 29th August, 2015

Opera Australia, not content with having one of the most dramatic and well known opera houses on Earth, decided to take advantage of the unique setting of Sydney harbour by staging summer seasons of operas on a floating stage moored in front of one of the world’s greatest backdrops. To one side is the famous bridge and the opera house, to the other the twinkling lights of the city centre - all given added sparkle by the water and punctuated by the ferries passing by. The specially constructed “theatre” seats nearly 4,000 people and there are bars and restaurants serving all sorts of food and drink.  The shows run for 4 weeks and they’re all sold out months ahead (55,000 people attended last year) - so we’re privileged to be able to offer you all front row seats tonight.

Producing opera on this grand scale - and in the open air - and on water - calls for a different approach to that taken in  normal opera house. For instance, you can’t see the orchestra but it’s there. The 80 musicians are in a humidity controlled environment under the stage - exposure to the changes in humidity in the open air would have made the instruments go out of tune. Opera singers don’t need amplification indoors but you’ll see the mikes tonight. Expert live mixing blends the voices perfectly with the subterranean musicians.

Similarly the scale of the event means that some liberties have to be taken with the content. If you’ve seen Carmen before you may remember that there’s quite a lot of spoken dialogue. Much of this has been cut and the director has concentrated on keeping the action moving in order not to lose the attention of those seated far from the stage. It makes for a crisp and fast paced version of the opera and the visual and aural delights more than make up for the loss of dialogue.

That this story is such a crowd pleaser is a little strange. It’s a dark tale of lust, treachery, infidelity and murder set against a background of crime and barbaric blood sports. The glorious music and spectacle sugar the pill but what it all boils down to is “man fancies woman, woman fancies a bullfighter, man kills woman…. and nobody lives happily ever after”.

The opera was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1874. The depictions of proletarian life, immorality and lawlessness, and the tragic death of the main character on stage, broke new ground in French opera and were highly controversial. After the premiere, most reviews were critical, and it was not revived in Paris until 1883; thereafter it rapidly acquired celebrity at home and abroad, and continues to be one of the most frequently performed operas.

Over the years the piece has been prey to all sorts of directorial distractions. Many (like our show tonight) concentrate on the spectacle with the central tragedy struggling to break to the surface (because of the power of the music it always succeeds to devastating effect). There have been Carmens set in the Bronx, in the desert, on the Moon… and a memorable WNO version set in a Siberian salt mine where Carmen made her first entrance tied up in a sack and riding on a rusty railway truck. Some directors have shied away from the decidedly non-PC profession of the factory girls and others have positively embraced it with entire choruses puffing away at Gitanes while the audience choked in sympathy. Whatever the treatment, the show seems to weather it and triumph. The music is glorious, the drama gripping and the ending is unfailingly moving… we trust you brought a hankie… unless you’re made of stone, you’ll almost certainly need it!

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