There is always a feeling of excitement when great operas are performed in the open air. Acclaimed venues like Verona, Bregenz and Sydney draw eager audiences from all over the world. Last night thousands of opera lovers packed Victoria Square in central Adelaide to experience a thrilling sold-out performance of Bizet’s Carmen. The State Opera of South Australia had assembled an outstanding cast, led by Helen Sherman as Carmen and James Egglestone as Don José, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Oliver van Dohnányi.

Helen Sherman (Carmen) and James Egglestone (Don José)
© Soda Street Productions

They chose a stage similar to that common at rock concerts, installed some static scaffolding for the sets, and relied on large video screens either side of the stage, and deeper into the crowd, to project details of the action to the vast audience. Wes Hiscock’s lighting seemed underwhelming on the stage, yet much brighter when seen on the big screens. Cleverly, with black coloured stage and borderless video screens, the projections merged seamlessly into the night background.

A good Carmen needs a rich sensuous, seductive, sultry voice, and Helen Sherman provided this. From her entry as cigarette factory worker to her final encounter with Don José outside the bullring, Sherman was a delight. Always strong and convincing, she portrayed a powerful Carmen who needed to get her way, and was dangerous when rebuffed. Sherman sang a superb Seguidilla as, in the square outside the cigarette factory, she beguiled Don José, seducing him with the hope of a night of dancing and passion at Lillas Pastia's tavern. There, Sherman’s Carmen was powerfully convincing as she began her seduction, sensually donning Don José's hat and coat, her voice so intimate, dancing in his honour, only to be stunned, then distressed as he got distracted by the barracks’ bugle blending with her song, finally winning out. Sherman’s display of disgust was palpable, her rejection and mocking forceful, her offended pride and self-centredness assaulted. She cleverly projected all these emotions, reinforced by the impact of the orchestra. Alone in the tavern with fellow gypsies Frasquita (Desiree Frahn) and Mercédès (Bethany Hill) and joined by smugglers Dancaïre (Samuel Dundas) and Remendado (Adam Goodburn) the five combined powerfully and confidently, blending beautifully in the quintet praising the joys of smuggled goods.

State Opera Chorus
© Soda Street Productions

Carmen’s squabble with Don José at the camp in the hills was another of Sherman’s interpretation gems – their disagreement heartfelt, their arguing believable – dominated by her supreme demand for freedom. Then, augmented by close-up video, we sensed her fear, fatalism and aloneness as she dealt her cards only to discover that she (and Don José) were destined for death.

James Egglestone sang a memorable Don José, developing from a mother’s boy with a soft spot for Micaëla (although his quick temper had previously seen him kill a man) through to one so obsessed with desire for Carmen that he would kill her. He sang powerfully and truly all night, at his best in the Act 2 seduction, and the Act 3 squabble in the mountains. He portrayed natural believability in his singing, effortlessly expressing generous amounts of feeling and passion. I could sense his pain in the final act, as outside the bullring, irrational in his obsession, he pleaded with Carmen, until driven by deep desperation, his confidence ebbing away, he stabbed her.

Morgan Pearse (Escamillo)
© Soda Street Productions

Emma Pearson was a fascinating Micaëla, a beautifully sweet soprano who conveyed an air of certainty. She was impressive in her Act 1 encounter with the soldiers and her dialogue with Don José, showing just enough embarrassment with his mother’s suggestion he marry her, and her choice of a modest kiss to Don José’s forehead. Again, sent up into the mountains in Act 3 to warn him of his mother’s pending death, she overcame her fear, and with commanding singing, no uncertainty in her voice, convincingly delivered her message.

Escamillo, the toreador, was magnificently sung by Morgan Pearse. He projected an air of confidence in the tavern scene, surrounded by adoring fans, singing commandingly. He did so again in his Act 3 cameo, and in Act 4, looked impressive in his toreador attire.

The costumes by Emma Brockliss were great, the chorus magnificent, the orchestra outstanding, the production and its use of video screens effective, the thousands who attended, some for their first taste of opera, enthralled and the weather, too, held out.