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Bizet: Carmen / Castles-onion, Shaham, Popov, Swadivong, Jones, Car

Release Date: 11/19/2013 
Label:  Opera Australia   Catalog #: 56043  
Composer:  Georges Bizet
Performer:  Nicole CarRinat ShahamDmitri PopovAndrew Jones,   ... 
Conductor:  Brian Castles-Onion
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Australian Opera and Ballet OrchestraOpera Australia Chorus
Number of Discs: 1 
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BIZET Carmen Brian Castles-Onion, cond; Rinat Shaham ( Carmen ); Dmytro Popov ( Don José ); Andrew Jones ( Escamillo ); Nicole Car ( Micaëla ); Adrian Read more Tamburini ( Zuniga ); Ariya Sawadivong ( Frasquita ); Tania Ferris ( Mercédès ); Australian Op & Ballet O & Ch OPERA AUSTRALIA 56043 (Blu-ray: 141:00) Live: Sydney 2013

Sydney Australia has a perfectly fine opera house—in fact, it is architecturally one of the most beautiful in the world. One would think that Opera Australia would be more than content to put on productions there. But no, they have to go down the block on Sydney harbor, put up bleachers, and perform operas on a floating dock out in the water. Such is the Carmen seen here. I suspect it has something to do with attracting tourists, who seem to enjoy spectacular outdoor extravaganzas. But, as with the Arena di Verona, which practically invented outdoor opera, there are inherent problems: sound is one, although thankfully not on this Blu-ray reproduction; weather another, but then we are warm and dry in front of our flat screens. Since the audience is farther away, everything must be writ large: the sets (this one includes a full-sized army tank), the dancing numbers, the acting. Since it is an extravaganza there must be fireworks, impressive in person but difficult to capture on video. And so, we come to Carmen, who after all of this spectacle is still stabbed to death in the last act, a sobering ending to such a fine evening on the water.

I have to admit this production is quite visually entertaining, but is it Carmen ? Bizet’s opera, after all, juxtaposes pomp and spectacle with more intimate scenes for the protagonists, soldier Don José and gypsy Carmen. I have no doubt the cameras give us a better view than the live audience was getting, but the drama holds up remarkably well. The setting here seems to be modern era, but then soldiers, gypsies, matadors, and flamenco dancers look much the same, era to era. The changing of the guard and the children’s chorus is omitted from act I; Don José just shows up mid-morning to notice Micaëla waiting at the gate, as if he missed reveille. The color du jour for this production is, what else, red. Carmen is dressed in hot red, we have large red lit scaffolding—even the stage lighting is tinted red in the later scenes. A giant red neon bull competes for attention with a giant neon lettered CARMEN, both of which seem taken straight from the Vegas strip. Large props—an antique army truck, the tank, and a very large box—appear and disappear from the stage by way of large cranes. Escamillo arrives in full matador rig in a snazzy red roadster convertible; no horses need apply here. The card scene and much of the rest of act III occur atop the flying box, now set firmly on the ground. The stage below is ringed with campfires, a nice visual touch.

None of the principal singers is French, and the singing not particularly idiomatic. A mixture of spoken dialogue and sung recitatives is used, but much has been snipped. Our Carmen here is Israeli-born mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, something of a Carmen specialist. She plays the role here from the seductive school, sizzling, sexy, and sultry. She also sings it very well; her big act I numbers are highlights, as you want them to be, and she has a smoky lower register that is quite compelling. Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov has a baritonal quality to his voice that belies any “Frenchness,” but he sings well and acts well. Of course all the principal singers are miked, and I never caught sight of the orchestra, so who knows how they sounded to the bleacherites? They are all captured in fine sound on disc, and in sync with the orchestra. The baritone Escamillo of Andrew Jones will not put anyone in mind of Robert Merrill in the role. Jones sings with what charitably might be described as a tremulous voice (or, not so charitably, a wobble), but then he doesn’t have that much to sing. The Micaëla of Nicole Car is fresh-voiced and sunny, her wholesome looks contrast sharply with the magnetic Carmen. Who can blame the smitten Don José for his choice in women? The chorus and extras sing and dance in lavish production numbers that are another highlight.

Carmen of course, is one of the world’s favorite operas; just about everyone loves the music, and most people recognize it as soon as they hear it. The number of Carmen videos has now reached the 20+ mark, several, as this one, on high definition Blu-ray disc. My own favorite of the moment is with Elena Garanca and Roberto Alagna from the Metropolitan Opera. This outdoor version from Sydney Harbor is entertaining and generally well sung, but not a first choice. It is well worth a look if you are so inclined. Recommended.

FANFARE: Bill White

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Works on This Recording

Carmen by Georges Bizet
Performer:  Nicole Car (Soprano), Rinat Shaham (Soprano), Dmitri Popov (Tenor),
Andrew Jones (Baritone), Ariya Sawadivong (Soprano)
Conductor:  Brian Castles-Onion
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra,  Opera Australia Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1873-1874; France 

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