Opera Australia’s Carmen – A Pinnacle of Opera Achievement

Love is a rebellious bird that none can tame in Opera Australia’s fabulous presentation of Carmen, based on the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Norwegian National Opera co-production.

It opened to a packed house and a very appreciative cheering audience, at the State Theatre in the Arts Centre, Melbourne on Wednesday evening 14th May 2014,

Carmen is an opera by French composer Alexandre César Léopold Bizet (1838-1875) with a libretto after a short story of the same title. It was written by French dramatist, writer, historian and archaeologist Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870).

Don José is a soldier who deserts the army, abandoning his childhood sweetheart Michaela who his mother has approved for him to marry, to follow a sensuous seductive gypsy girl. He is possessed, and becomes obsessed by the love he bears for her.

This is a full on folk drama of dramatic and emotional intensity, set to stunning, sensational music that is delivered in fine style by a dazzling and vital orchestra.

Filled with heat, hubris, wonderful harmonies and inescapable melodies, OA’s Carmen is potent, full of pulsating life, one to be enjoyed by opera aficionados and the uninitiated alike.

Carmen was a work that towered over other opera productions of its day in terms of its composition; and this version certainly does in ours.

With text by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, it’s full of an almost brutal force that contrasts expressively with its naturalness.

Nancy Fabiola Herrera with David Pomeroy as Don José in Carmen, courtesy Opera Australia photo by Jeff Busby

It is blessed with many outstanding arias and fabulous fragments of music that seem overwhelming at times, such is their magnitude.

This Opera Australia (OA) production is true to its period. It’s wicked, refined and completely fantastic, especially as delivered by the truly splendid cast and the talented musicians of Orchestra Victoria under the invigorating baton of conductor Brian Castles-Onion.

They were all on fire!

OA’s Carmen was dramatic and full-bodied while in its quieter deeper moments, it was full of empathy, wonderful warmth and compassion projected so handsomely by its incredible star, who captured the essence of a very complex woman.

The set, the costumes, the choreography, the horses live on stage and the inspired playing helped weave the magic, providing the audience with passionate images integral to 19th century Spain and its social and cultural development.

The staging was fashioned around the savage beauty and brutality of both the bullring and mountains of Spain.

Its colours were earthy and burnt, the ruby reds showing off the rich ochre, brown and citrus tones of a special palette which was fiery but not fearsome. They were punctuated purposefully by the glittering glamour of the torero’s costumes.

Artists of Opera Australia photo by Jeff Busby, courtesy Opera Australia

The splendid OA cast rose completely to the occasion, displaying astonishing integrity and seriousness of purpose.

Their professionalism was a joy to behold.

This distinguished opera of love and life revealed not only the courage of its composer, but also that of its true Queen of the night, the amazing Spanish mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera.

Her performance was delivered with great conviction as she convinced those watching, that she had that often indefinable, elusive quality that cannot help but charm … je ne sais quoi.

She presented magnificently, inspiring the cast around her who performed at the pinnacle of artistic operatic achievement.

Carmen, courtesy Opera Australia photo by Jeff Busby

Her L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, or ‘Love is a rebellious bird’ proved that Nancy Fabiola Herrera was Carmen.

She inhabited the role to such an extent the audience were entirely persuaded that she was.

They were captivated by the brilliance, elegance, earthiness and splendour of her performance.

She was gorgeous – dangerous, dirty dancing, stamping her feet and tossing her untamed hair with a purpose and passion that astounded everyone.

Her glorious voice was full of power, with rich fruity earthy tones that excelled above all expectations in the high register, ensuring that sparks would, and did fly.

Carmen not only needs men to adore her but also wants them to allow her complete freedom to love and be loved as she chooses; a new form of unconditional love most would find impossible to deliver.

Especially Don Jose, the naïve soldier she sets her sights on. He has seemingly spent his life before the army with a sweet country girl who adores him and a mother who does not know how to let him go.

Canadian Tenor David Pomeroy as Don José had an incredible voice with truly thrilling top notes… however on the night his second act was far stronger and more impressive than his first.

He seemed underwhelming in his scenes with soldiers. However, that said, his scenes with Herrara were most impressive, as they inspired each other.

Their fatal confrontation for the finale was full on, heightening the dramatic ending.

Nancy Fabiola Herrera has performed this role in all the great opera houses from Rome to Los Angeles and New York, from London to Berlin and Hamburg and Dresden and it shows.

Her ability to dance and play the castanets so well added yet another layer of expertise and enjoyment to her very fine performance.

Michael Honeyman as Escamillo arriving on stage in sensational style, photo by Jeff Busby courtesy Opera Australia

At its heart the Torero in Carmen is a central figure. On our night he was an outstanding presence on stage. Michael Honeyman turned all heads as he arrived riding a sensational, and very real horse.

Why Carmen would have instantly preferred Don José over the truly dashing torero Escamillo, so convincingly played by baritone Michael Honeyman, would have truly been a puzzle for many of the women there.

Honeyman completely mastered the movements and the dashing gallantry of a man who truly lives in the spotlight and, for the moment. He loves life, and it shows. His wonderful rendition of the famous ‘Toreador song was memorable.

He was wearing a fabulous waist length traje corto jacket with a brilliant hot pink sash and, with great dash, he clicked those super Cuban heels that helped to keep him well on his toes. As an entrance it would be pretty hard to beat anywhere really.

Honeyman isn’t on the stage for long, but sparkles like a bright shining star, making an incredible debut in this role and an indelible impression.

He has a beautiful voice and a great sense of theatricality and he completely nailed the smooth-talking head-turning Escamillo perfectly. He gave us all the sense that he was possessing all the women in the room, in a way that was entirely attractive.

David Pomeroy as Don José and Natalie Aroyan as Mikcaëla, photo by Jeff Busby courtesy Opera Australia

Micaëla, a country girl was sensitively and superbly played by Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan. She was beautiful; mesmerizing, breathtaking really, fragile and full of courage and conviction.

Her final outstanding aria in Act two was a bravura performance, she appeared so incredibly vulnerable and her song was so heartfelt the audience was entirely swept up in the scene.

Carmen and her friends, photo by Jeff Busby, courtesy Opera Australia

Carmen’s two companions, Frasquita and Mercédés played respectively by Jane Ede and Victoria Lambourn were also out of the box. They sang up a storm and were engaged in scene stealing wherever and whenever they could.

Tenor Christopher Hillier was a very fine and menacing corporal and the smugglers Luke Gabbedy and Sam Robert-Smith were also right on target. They were both very impressive as a duo.

The chorus looked and sounded wonderful…the fight scenes were wonderfully staged and the costumes for me evoked both exotic and very alluring images of Spain.

There were layers of fabulous frills and rich burgundy petticoats swirling against the impressive set. At one stage it had a truly sensational Seville Orange tree set against Terracotta high walls.

Escamillo and Carmen, photo by Jef Busby, courtesy Opera Australia

Then there was the grand procession before the bullfight, beautifully and sparingly staged, with the torero’s all wearing their jewel studded short coated suits with great flair.

Nothing however detracted from the singing, which was on opening night quite simply outstanding.

And the horse, well it was a stand out too.

There were two of them. The lovely gentle white who only appeared on our night in act two and the stunning black in act one that carried his precious charge the torero so well.

To top it all off, he performed a great bow to the audience following the dramatic finale, and they lapped it up. Animals always upstage humans.

Goodness, the excited buzz and chatter of the audience was palpable as we left.

All those people sitting around my opera buddy and I said they loved every engrossing minute and there was only one disappointment for an elderly lady sitting a few seats for me; Carmen didn’t wear bright pillarbox RED, the colour of passion.

For her in the reflective years of her life, she didn’t want the subtle earthy rich palette chosen, she wanted to feel as if she was burning bright anew, not only through the voices, but through the visual imagery as well.

The bird you hoped to catch
Beat its wings and flew away …

Love is fate and fate is cruel for the ill-fated gypsy girl Carmen, especially in that final moment when ‘she pulled a ring I had given her off her finger, and cast it into the brushwood’, recalled Don Jose when giving himself up to the guard.

“I struck her twice over—I had taken Garcia’s knife, because I had broken my own. At the second thrust she fell without a sound. It seems to me that I can still see her great black eyes staring at me. Then they grew dim and the lids closed”**

This was glorious music, a terrific tonic for the head, the heart and the soul.

The opera ends with Don José her former lover saying ‘Yes, it is I who have killed her, I~my adored Carmen!

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Francesca Zambello’s production




CONDUCTOR Brian Castles-Onion
DIRECTOR Francesca Zambello

Nancy Fabiola Herrera* or
Milijana Nikolic†
David Pomeroy*
Bradley Daley†
Michael Honeyman*
Shane Lowrencev†
Natalie Aroyan*
Daria Masiero†
Adrian Tamburini
Luke Gabbedy
Sam Roberts-Smith
Christopher Hillier
Jane Ede
Victoria Lambourn
Roslyn Howell
Robert Mitchell

Orchestra Victoria
Opera Australia Chorus

This production of Carmen is based on the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Norwegian National Opera co-production first performed at Covent Garden in 2006.

**Quote from Project Gutenberg Book of Carmen, by Prosper Merimee

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