At the end of May we went to two opera’s in the one week. Talk about living it up in Melbourne! Both Opera Australia productions. One an old favourite, one of Opera’s canonical works and the second one an operatic rarity.

The first was Carmen. I had been given tickets by my former work team, on the occasion of my retirement. A wonderful present. And a wonderful experience. It is a long time since I have seen this opera which was once described to me as the perfect short opera (leaving Wagner’s Ring Cycle the uncontested best full opera experience).

This Carmen was a very different production to any other I have seen. Exuberant colours and great vitality. Not surprising given the Director was John Bell. He took as his backdrop Havana, Cuba. Which allows for some very colourful costuming which worked well in the early parts of the opera when we are in the square in town and in the tavern. Carmen’s bright pink dress in Act I was perfect for her dramatic entrance and subsequent dominance of everyone around her. And having a mobile van as the tavern in Act II was fun. The almost carnival like atmosphere also allowed for some energetic dancing by a a troop of young boys. But this sort of frenetic activity can be overdone. I think there is a tendency for theatre directors to not quite trust the music to deliver enough on its own. They want to fill the stage with action at every turn, occasionally to the detriment of the drama of the music itself. And this was the case here a little.

And while the costumes were colourful and I enjoyed them in the main, there were a couple of glitches. The biggest was the lack of differential when it came to Act III where the characters are meant to be in the mountains living a hard life as outlaws. Here they all looked as though they had just popped into a warehouse around from the tavern. Everyone was dressed as they were in Act II. There was no sense of menace and accordingly no real sense of the depths to which Don Jose had flung himself in order to follow Carmen. She herself was let down earlier, when during the whole scene of her seduction of Don Jose she is dressed in what looks like a house coat! And in the final Act she is dressed in black dress and stilettos and pearls accompanying Escamillo to the bullfight. She looked rather like a Toorak matron instead of a femme fatale risking death to pursue her freedom from past conquests. Disconcerting.

Never mind these small cavils, what matters most is the quality of the singing and the music. The Israeli singer Rinat Shaham was the best Carmen I have ever seen and heard. She was suitably passionate and seductive to convince us that Don Jose would risk everything for her. At the same time, she was sufficiently free wheeling to convince us she would be ultimately completely merciless to the poor Don Jose even at risk to herself. I do tend to agree with the second review to which I have linked below that this existential element to Carmen – freedom above all – is to some extent lost in the carnival atmosphere that dominates the stage. I think the the Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov had the harder task in this opera. Which is to show how a simple but upright village lad could be swept so far from his ordinary moral compass as to commit murder. But he was completely up to the task, I thought right from the outset, unlike the second review below. His singing was beautiful and he was utterly convincing in the role, eliciting strong sympathy for this hapless fellow. Their duets were hair raising. And their performances utterly convincing.

Whilst these two leads were great, the surprise of the night was the Melbourne born Stacey Alleaume singing the role of Micalea the village girl sent to retrieve Don Jose from the big smoke. She sang beautifully portraying both her innocence and her anguish at what has befallen him.

Here is a review with which I largely agree. And here is another which is more critical, but with which I agree to some extent about the impact of the emphasis on colour and movement. I also agree about the casting of the bull fighter Escamillo; he was skinny as a bean pole and didn’t quite fit the regal come powerful look required. The reference to clownish costuming may perhaps have been a reference to these toreadors, who preceded Escamillo and Carmen’s entrance to the bullfight. They were on stage for a millisecond. Both reviews provide more expert commentary than I am able to provide on the quality of the singing. I thought it was all terrific.

The following week-end we saw King Roger. Another Opera Australia production. A matinee this time and the final performance of a very little known and little performed work. By the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski it is a very cerebral work, reflected beautifully in the stage design of this production which is dominated by a huge head.

We were fortunate to catch a lecture prior to the show. We hadn’t planned this, but arrived early and so attended. This is not something I would normally do as I like to come to performances uninfluenced by the interpretations of others. But given the strangeness of this work and its relative rarity having the benefit of some background certainly helped. There was a real King Roger in Sicily, in fact there were three. Who knew?! Roger, that most unlikely name, is an old Norman one. We are in the 12th century and this King Roger (the middle one I think) is a relatively progressive fellow welcoming people from other countries to his island where all live in harmony. The opera is all about his internal struggles – between the super-ego, the ego and the id. Hence the focus on the head. Fantastic. The music is influenced by Wagner. Another unexpected nuance to my enjoyment. The opera starts with a wonderful chorus, all located in tiered balconies around the central head. Followed by two religious figures, the Archbishop and the Deaconess, imploring the King to denounce a self proclaimed prophet who has appeared on the island, the Shepherd.

The King’s wife, Roxana, urges him to give the Shepherd a hearing. Here they are, the epitome of civilised modernity.

After some to-ing and fro-ing the King agrees to meet with the Shepherd in private, at his home. This leads to Act II where the head on stage is turned around and we see the three levels, an orb, which later becomes an eye on the first level – the super ego – books dominating the central level – the ego – and writhing male dancers dominating the bottom level – the id. The Shepherd preaches a philosophy of pleasure. As we can see the King supports rationality and learning and convention. Roxana is attracted to the Shepherd’s teachings. She sings a hauntingly beautiful song, entreating Roger to make love to her, something she has not done for a long time we are told by the King’s adviser, Edrisi. The Shepherd arrives and the two debate. We see King Roger increasingly disturbed by his id. Fantastic sinuous performances from the dancers. It is all wonderfully done – compelling musical drama as Wagner would have called it.

The Shepherd is a charismatic figure.

He foments revolution amongst the people and Roxana joins them. King Roger feels compelled to follow. In Act III we see the consequences, the head is burned down and into the glowing fire people are throwing King Roger’s books.

King Roger has lost everything. Or has he, the opera ends with him looking to a new dawn. The only glitch in the whole production this was presented as a spot light coming straight at the audience. But you got the picture.

The opera was written over six years as wars and revolutions ravaged Europe as it says in the production notes. The composer lost his home to the Bolsheviks. It was first performed in 1926. It could have been written this year. The themes are universal. All of the singing was terrific. Most of the singers were Australian. King Roger was performed by Michael Honeyman and Roxana by Lorina Gore. Both Australian, both having studied in Canberra. They were both great. At both singing and performing. The Shepherd was a Filipino-American tenor, Arthur Esperitu. I thought his singing weaker, but maybe it was a harder role. The Archbishop was a Russian, Gennardi Dubinsky. It is very hard to see how this production could be bettered. I hope we see it on Opera Australia’s programme again, for many years to come.


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