There can be fewer more idyllic places in the world to see an opera. Behind the floating stage was Sydney’s harbour bridge and opera house; to the left, the lights of the central business district; and to the right, the glittering lights of the Northern Shore and the occasional ferry making its way to Circular Quay. With last year’s Handa Opera on the Harbour, Verdi’s La Traviata having been named 2012 Australian event of the year, this year’s opera – Bizet’s Carmen – was highly anticipated. The same director as last year, Gale Edwards, was relied upon once again to deliver the goods, while Opera Australia had assembled a stellar cast with Israeli-born Rinat Shaham in the title role.

Opening night of Carmen on Sydney Harbour © James Morgan
Opening night of Carmen on Sydney Harbour
© James Morgan

The stage itself was simple with a large, red neon sign facing out towards the water spelling with name of the opera. At the beginning of the opera, two large cranes swung round and lowered two military vehicles onto the stage, seemingly for no particular reason other than to show that they could. There was no reason why they could not have driven on. Similarly, at the beginning of Act IV, Escamillo was lowered onto the stage from the night sky, adding a touch of showbiz to proceedings. Indeed, his first entrance of the evening had him being driven along the waterfront towards the stage in a classic car, from which he emerged beaming and waving to the audience, bedecked in a costume with rather a lot of glitter and with his jet-black her, somewhat reminiscent of a pop star.

However, Opera Australia cannot be blamed for adding glitz and glamour to the evening. In an outdoor production where many people are far away from the action, it needs to be visually stunning. And it certainly was, especially in the procession at the beginning of the final act, where the cast poured onto the stage bearing flags in a rather colourful display, all topped off by a spectacular firework display which lit up the night sky. Another issue with an outdoor production is the sound amplification. For me, the sound was clear but over-amplified, to such an extent that the detail in the louder sections was lost, although that may have been because I was sitting fairly near the front – I wonder what it would have sounded like further back.

The singing itself was very impressive. Accompanied by a tidy performance from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, the Opera Australia Chorus produced a vocally strong rendition, adding a certain feistiness to the production. Rinat Shaham as Carmen produced a very sensuous performance and brought much passion to the role. Her interpretation was vocally very alluring and full of seduction. She was well matched by Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov who played the part of Don José with much vocal flexibility and colour. However, for me the best vocal performance of the evening was from Opera Australia’s own Nicole Car, who played the part of Micaëla. None of the other singers could quite match the sheer beauty of her sound. Her rendition of the aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” was exquisite and for me the highlight of the evening. Australian baritone Andrew Jones shone as Escamillo, playing his part with much style. Also impressive was Adrian Tamburini, who played a forthright Zuniga with great confidence.

It is worth noting that quite significant cuts were made to Bizet’s score, most notably to the part of Don José, who lost a lot of his text. I suppose in the large, open arena of an outdoor opera, the director was perhaps more concerned in the large set pieces and the overall spectacle rather than the more intimate dialogues. Indeed, this perhaps sums up the evening for me. While the whole setting and spectacle was stunning, I left missing the intimacy of the opera house. By the nature of the production I found that Opera Australia provided us with a highly entertaining show, rather than a performance which cut to the heart of Bizet’s drama.