As with his recent fascist-era Tosca, veteran director John Bell has brought a knack for emotionally sophisticated but accessible theatre to this Opera Australia production. Add Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham’s vocally and dramatically compelling performance, and the result is a Carmen that will delight jaded aficionados and wow opera novices.

Rinat Shaham (Carmen) and Christopher Hillier (Moralès) © Jeff Busby
Rinat Shaham (Carmen) and Christopher Hillier (Moralès)
© Jeff Busby

First performed in Paris in 1875, Bizet's greatest hit (at least after his death) tells of the fatally passionate love affair between the sensual, independent title character, and Don José, who is a sensible soldier until he falls for Carmen. Despite the pleas of Micaëla, his mother's virginal messenger, José deserts the army and follows his lover for a life among gypsy smugglers. As Don José seeks to control and possess her, Carmen turns her attention to charismatic bullfighter Escamillo.

Such is the beauty and emotional depth of Shaham’s vocal interpretation that she would impress just by standing on the spot. Her powerful voice is rich with light and shade, from golden notes of love to the velvety darkness of her lower register as Carmen contemplates death. But far from standing on the spot, she embodies her character: flirtatious, seductive, defiant, Shaham dances, caresses, judiciously reveals some flesh and fights like a tigress. No wonder she seemed rather drained at the curtain call.

Rinat Shaham (Carmen) © Jeff Busby
Rinat Shaham (Carmen)
© Jeff Busby

If one were to quibble, Dmytro Popov could be accused of being a little short on excitement as Don José, but the Ukrainian tenor is technically excellent and has such a lovely, mellifluous quality to his voice that he indisputably holds his own against the Shaham powerhouse. Young hometown soprano Stacey Alleaume also impresses as Micaëla; her voice will gain depth with time, but is already pure and strong.

The supporting cast are all sure-footed, particularly Sian Pendry, whose Mercédès suggests complexity beneath the superficiality, a confident, phenomenally long-legged Shane Lowrencev as Escamillo, and Adrian Tamburini as the menacing Lieutenant Zuniga.

Stacey Alleaume (Micaëla) and Dmytro Popov (Don José) © Jeff Busby
Stacey Alleaume (Micaëla) and Dmytro Popov (Don José)
© Jeff Busby

The chorus, including a gaggle of boys, threw themselves into proceedings with a tremendous (but disciplined) energy that was further heightened by the dancers in their midst. The juvenile dancers delighted with moves from the street, while the adults frequently commanded the stage, as couples whose raunchy moves tellingly blurred violence and sexuality during the overture, through to their spectacular turn as Act 4’s bullfighters.

Orchestra Victoria delivered a lively performance under the baton of Brian Castles-Onion, from the galloping prelude through the exotic passages of Spanish and gypsy rhythms, but they could also hold back – particularly in the sombre entr’acte leading into Act 4, which was marked by a haunting oboe solo.

Shane Lowrencev (Escamillo), Rinat Shaham (Carmen), dancers and the Opera Australia Chorus © Jeff Busby
Shane Lowrencev (Escamillo), Rinat Shaham (Carmen), dancers and the Opera Australia Chorus
© Jeff Busby

In this production that subtly shifts the scene to a retro-contemporary Havana, nearly everyone wears eye-popping colour. Particularly ostentatious among Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are the bullfighters’ glamorous satins, and the gypsies’ cheap finery, including shiny, jewel-toned suits and sequined dresses. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s single set of dilapidated Spanish colonial architecture is a clever, open arrangement that gives the cast ample opportunity to move. Each act’s scene-setting additions are generally modest but evocative: low plaza steps, a little food truck and outdoor furniture for Lillas Pastias’ tavern, boxes in the gypsies’ lair. For Act 4’s bullfight fiesta, however, the productions’ riot of colour explodes into gorgeous summer brights on lanterns, streamers, even pinata-like horses amusingly strapped to a couple of game cast members.

Whether there is an abundance of colour and movement, or just the doomed lovers facing off on a barren, beige set in the final minutes, there’s never a dull moment in Opera Australia’s new Carmen. It’s a production likely to have a long life, and is not to be missed if someone of Shaham’s calibre is tackling the title role.