Last night, D and I went to see Carmen.
For some reason, Opera Australia doesn’t treat the series I subscribe to very well at all. Even though it is the Saturday night series with the most operas (and the most apart from the opening night series), we always get the second cast of the second summer opera (and possibly some others). So this time we missed out on the much-touted Kirsten Chavez and instead got Catherine Carby in the title role. CC was OK. She didn’t make the strongest of impressions in the Habanera but warmed up in her next number, where she Tralalalas in dumb insolence to the soldier’s questioning. She seemed more tomboyish than seductive. Even so, she failed to live up to the following rather outlandish stage direction:
(Elle casse une assiette, avec deux morceaux de faïence, se fait des castagnettes et les essaie…)
which requires her to break a plate and then use the pieces as a castanet. I don’t think I’ve seen any singer manage this. Catherine’s castanet technique was even a little deficient, so china would have been out of the question.
Of the others, Rosario La Spina was as enormous as ever, but the French style imposed more refinement than usual on his vocal manner. Joshua Bloom started off well as Escamillo though his voice seemed a little light for the role – more a matter of texture than volume. He approached some higher notes with a kind of trepidation (a sort of faking, almost) and a bit of what I call 78 -rpm tremolo entered his voice which prevented him from making as strong an impact as he has for me on previous occasions.
The big thing about this production (how naive are we all?) was that it included a live donkey and a live horse – the latter carrying Escamillo on in Act II and Carmen in Act IV. (If there were chickens, I missed them.) Pathetically, given what this says about us, this did contribute to the excitement, and especially the horse, even though it also served to emphasise just how small the Opera Theatre stage is. At interval, D complained that the costumes were too drab, but I took this as a type of proto-verismo.
The production was based on that originally directed by Zambello for Covent Garden and Opera Norske. The most exciting scene was Act II, and particularly the opening dance number. Not just for the dance itself, but rather for the entire effect. For the sake of this I am prepared to forgive Zambello the ineffective last scene (I’m sorry, but I don’t think Micaela looking on over the back fence of the bull-fighting arena is a substitute for the crowd spilling out and finding Don Jose red-handed). But the production as a whole did not really move me, and I’m still trying to work out why. Even the psychological crux of the production, which is that Carmen has already fallen out of love with Don Jose before she even begins to try to tempt him off to the mountains, was not really revelatory. The music, of course, is terrific, but that too does not come as a surprise, although I was able to savour the orchestral detail which is very characteristic of Bizet (lots of quite detailed but light and lithe figuration).
Amidst the quasi-verismo, two particular incongruities stood out.
In the first act, a gang of street urchins imitate the soldiers as they are changing guard. (Like the ballet, it seems the children’s chorus was at one stage an obligatory element of operatic spectacle.) In this production, there is a degree of business where, as part of this play, they take aim and fire, using sticks or crutches (some are beggars) as guns. Anachronistically, some of the boys seem to have imagined that their “guns” were machine guns.
In Acts II and III, Don Jose is obliged to run away with the gypsies, who are engaged in smuggling over the mountains. Unless I am missing some kind of devilishy cunning double bluff here, I would have thought it unlikely that smugglers would embark upon their enterprise with long wooden crates which are obligingly labelled “Esplosivos.”
Carmen is the first opera I ever saw from a really good seat. I was at the opera with my parents (or possibly just one of them) and we ran into Gordon Samuels and Jackie Kott (or J Samuels, depending on the occasion). Jackie was known to my parents from their youth at the University of WA and in the world of West Australian expatriates in Sydney they must have seen something of her in at least their earlier years in Sydney. Gordon was doubtless a very busy man. He muttered something about it being rather a second-eleven sort of cast, and I saw the remainder of the performance from their seats near the front of the stalls. It was a revelation!
Not that the cast was totally second-rate. I was very taken with Huguette Tourangeau (something of a Bonynge protege) in the title role. Even if you don’t speak French yourself, you can tell the difference when the singer really does. No subsequent Carmen I have seen has surpassed the impact she made. At the time the tenor situation for the Australian Opera seemed to be one of permanent crisis, and I don’t remember the Don Jose as being so impressive, which I think is what provoked the “second eleven” comment. Dolores Cambridge was Micaela. Or Mercedes. Whatever.
I last saw Gordon, looking pretty frail and in a wheel chair, with Jackie at a concert of the Australia Ensemble last year. He and JK/S were at the magnificent end of my parents’ range of acquaintance: I am not sure if I ever spoke to him except for the occasion when I got his ticket. I would have liked to go up to him and thank him for the ticket all those years ago, but it seemed presumptuous. Too late to thank him now.