Bizet’s Carmen has long enthralled audiences with its gypsy flair, colour and passion – not to mention a score packed with hits that have taken on lives of their own outside the opera. In many ways it seems perfect material for the opera-spectacle of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.

Gale Edwards’ production, which received its first outing in 2013, is set behind a giant CARMEN sign – a stand-in for HOLLYWOOD – the action taking place against the scaffolding, the gritty back-end of fame and prestige. Brian Thomson’s set is sombre and desolate, swathes of empty space with a patina of rust, into which cranes drop a tank and a jeep. John Rayment’s lighting design highlights the textural quality of the set early on before bursting into colour later in the show.

Carmen on Sydney HarbourCarmen on Sydney Harbour. Photo © Hamilton Lund

The lonely bleakness of the setting – somehow removed from the city-scape and harbour behind – adds authenticity to the boredom and discomfort of the soldiers as they wait for the girls to emerge from the cigarette factory, a subterranean bunker that opens in the centre of the stage.

The opera has been trimmed significantly, however, particularly the dialogue (not to mention the absent children’s chorus), which doesn’t leave much left in the way of plot and context, except that which is conveyed through the music.

There is little reference to cigarettes – the chorus of girls who emerge from the ‘factory’ wield fans and with so little context their song advocating the pleasures of smoke seems slightly incongruous.

And it is these incongruities that are the weak-point in this production. The desolate emptiness of the set – barely transformed into Lillas Pastia’s seamy tavern (Pastia is also cut) by some scattered tables, rubs oddly with the garishly glitter-strewn dance number that calls to mind the gaudiest of musical theatre showstoppers – but the fireworks are a pleasure.

Carmen and Don JoséJosè Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen and Andeka Gorrotxategi as Done José. Photos © Prudence Upton

That said, powerful story-telling by the leads puts some flesh back on the skeletal plotting. Italian mezzo Josè Maria Lo Monaco is a spritely, firecracker of a Carmen. The production requires no small amount of athleticism on her part – running between jeep and tank gives her L’amour est un Oiseau Rebelle a slightly breathless quality – but she harnesses it and turns it to her advantage. And despite the physical exertion there is a roundness to her sound, with plenty of body in the high register – and she has no trouble spitting scorn when she has to.

Her Don José is Spanish tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi and it is their sexual duelling that drives the story forward. The emptiness of the set – turned into a giant red-rimmed bullring – becomes incredibly effective as the pair circle each other in Carmen’s Seguidilla, a kind of erotic tug-of-war at either end of a rope. Gorrotxategi’s burnished tenor cuts across the water and he deftly manages his character’s development – small (at first) acts of anger, frustration and violence accumulate until Don José is transformed from shy, nervous soldier – concerned about mother and duty – into a controlling, predatory stalker. His final duet with Lo Monaco – neatly paralleling the bullfight taking place on the other side of the CARMEN sign – is the dramatic and musical climax, bathed in dark red, the bull carcass from the 2013 iteration of this production mercifully absent.

Luke Gabbedy as EscamilloLuke Gabbedy as Escamillo

Australian baritone Luke Gabbedy makes for a slick Escamillo in glittering white coat and sparkly black pants (Julie Lynch’s costumes run the gamut from worn soldiers and workers to bedazzling showbiz glitz). An Elvis-like celebrity, Escamillo is driven up to Lillas Pastia’s in a Rolls Royce and dropped into the bull-fighting arena by crane. With plenty of vocal power, he makes a fine sparring partner for Gorrotxategi, both singers pushing back hard.

Natalie Aroyan as MicaëlaNatalie Aroyan as Micaëla

Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan shines as Micaëla (though the cuts to dialogue downplay Don José’s interest in her, leaving her character somewhat adrift). Her Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante – perched on a shipping crate suspended far above the stage – is a highlight.

Smugglers and gypsies in Carmen on Sydney HarbourGypsies and smugglers

The smugglers and gypsies – Jane Ede as Frasquita, Margaret Trubiano as Mercédès, Nicholas Jones as Remendado and Christopher Hillier as Dancairo – inject plenty of fun into some excellent ensemble work, while Simon Meadows is a casually menacing Moralès. Adrian Tamburini brings a confident potency to Zuniga.

Brian Castles-Onion leads the orchestra with verve and the synchronicity of singers and orchestra is generally excellent despite the challenges of the Opera on the Harbour set-up. The flute solo in the Entr’acte is shaped exquisitely. The sound on opening night, also challenging in this setting, was good after a few very quick adjustments early on.

Dancer Amy CampbellDancer Amy Campbell

Kelley Abbey’s choreography is mesmerising – if a little bit West Side Story at times – the highlight a fierily orange-clad Amy Campbell, whose train flows and transforms into stunning floral shapes.

Part of the charm of the outdoor setting are the foibles of wildlife and weather. A bat’s screech synchronised perfectly with Don José and Micaëla’s kiss, and – while the rain largely held off – the chorus did a fine job of ignoring the rustle and mutter of the audience struggling to find and don ponchos when a light sprinkle accompanied the cigarette girls’ chorus.

If the heavy trimming in this production of Carmen renders the story a little light-on, there is still plenty to love. The leads on opening night were excellent – Australian mezzo Sian Pendry and Polish tenor Arnold Rutowski lead the alternate shows – and Bizet’s music is great. Lovers of Carmen’s hits won’t be disappointed.

Carmen on Sydney Harbour is at Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point until April 23


Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.