In New Zealand Opera's new production of Bizet's Carmen, director Lindy Hume seemed keen to rid Bizet’s opera of all of the tired clichés with which it often abounds. Most of the superficial Spanish elements which one might associate with a conventional production were gone and all for the better – Hume encouraged the performers to find real characters and this resulted in an overall strength of conception and phenomenal dramatic tension rarely seen on New Zealand stages. No strumpet or harridan, this Carmen was simply a woman who longed to act as she wished rather than fit into any man's conception of what a woman should be.

Nino Surguladze (Carmen) and chorus © Marty Melville
Nino Surguladze (Carmen) and chorus
© Marty Melville

The opening scenes which often seem dramatically pointless in other performances, were here used as effective scene-setters. One could readily perceive the misogynistic world in which the opera takes place through the sometimes slightly surrealised movements on stage. Having a very unwilling dancer performing for the men at the opening of the Chanson bohème, followed by the phenomenon of a "free" Carmen and friends making the tavern's men cower before them, showed further Hume’s intention of not shying away from these issues. Chorus scenes were often stylised – one striking example was the opening to Act 4, where the usual marketsellers became a swirling circle of humanity through which Don José struggled to move, effectively evoking his alienation at that moment. Throughout, every movement, every action, seemed utterly natural, making Don José's moments of physical violence against Carmen all the more shocking.

The finest singing of the evening came from Micaëla, Emma Pearson. At first her very pretty but rather light voice made a pleasing effect with its pearly higher register in the duet with Don José, but one was unprepared for the gain in amplitude of tone and dramatic engagement in her big third act aria. Along with a fine attack on the climaxes, she brought a sense of fervid desperation both vocally and in her facial expressions. Escamillo is a killer of a part, high for a bass but with sections uncomfortably low for a baritone. James Clayton coped well with particularly ringing high notes. He benefited too from the staging’s banishment of toreador clichés, allowing him to create a genuinely charming but forceful character.

James Harrison (Moralès) and Emma Pearson (Micaëla) © Marty Melville
James Harrison (Moralès) and Emma Pearson (Micaëla)
© Marty Melville

The mostly New Zealand singers in the smaller roles all sang and acted well, with special mention needed for Amelia Berry’s fearless ascents to Frasquita’s frequent high notes in ensemble. The vibrant chorus sang splendidly in their every appearance. Despite some unfortunate brass playing in the prelude, not much criticism could be made of the orchestra, with the woodwind in particular shining in their solos at the opening of the third act. Conductor Francesco Pasqualetti took most of the score fleetly, but importantly knows how to let the music breathe, how to give his singers the flexibility they need to make maximum effect.

Opinions of Tom Randle’s Don José will probably vary according to one’s reaction to his rather strenuous vocal production. For me, his attention to the dramatic situation was more than ample compensation. From the start, we sensed that Don José was an unbalanced man and by the end he was in an absolutely tortured state, a simple man driven completely out of his emotional and psychological depth. This was shown vocally as well as physically – there was a creepy intensity in the final pianissimo notes of the Flower Song and his many outbursts at Carmen were arresting in their raw intensity. He also provided some striking vocal effects, from his gentle and perfectly-blended final phrases in the duet with Micaëla to his intense long-breathed lines in the finale.

Tom Randle (Don José) and Nino Surguladze (Carmen) © Marty Melville
Tom Randle (Don José) and Nino Surguladze (Carmen)
© Marty Melville

Finally, in the title-role, Georgian mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze was a marvel in her identification with her part and her subtle and specific acting. Her sexiness came from small gestures rather than overly brassy flirtation, the Habanera defined by how little she had to move to entice. Surguladze was dignified in the face of Don José's final entreaties and her reaction to each was subtly differentiated. Her tone has an intriguingly piquant vibrancy and a juicy middle register for the dramatic outbursts. Particularly in the Habanera and her duet with Don José, Surguladze shaped Carmen’s phrases winningly, knowing just when to linger to create the most seductive effect. The Card Scene was suitably haunting with frequent descents into her ample chest voice. This superlative performance combined with Hume’s direction and the commitment of the rest of the cast to produce a Carmen that was certainly among the most thrilling performances New Zealand Opera has put on in recent memory.