Handa Opera’s CARMEN spells out the opera in fierce red against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour (Performances until April 23rd)

CARMEN. Big block letters spell out the opera in fierce red against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour, an outline of a bull back to back with the lettering. Nothing takes away from the thrill of gazing upon the stage at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour each year and seeing the cityscape stretch behind, but this year it all feels somewhat toned down. No giant fire breathing dragons or soaring Egyptian relics here. And although this does give the actual singing more of a chance to shine, I feel like Handa’s Carmen was just missing something. Maybe it was just the rain putting a dampener on things.

Jose Maria Lo Monaco is fabulous in her role as Carmen, convincingly portraying the gypsy seductress- her voice alluring and dangerous as fire. Barefoot she confidently dances about the stage, proving herself as adept in the movement and dramatic side of performance as well as comfortably nailing Carmen’s big vocal numbers like “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”. She is supported by Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don Jose and Luke Gabbedy as Escamillo, both who are at ease in their roles. Natalie Aroyan sings a beautiful Micaela. Certainly we are not left wanting in the vocal department.

Carmen also lends itself to some truly fantastic latin dance sequences, and the dancers at Handa do not disappoint. There is passionate pair work and energetic tumbling, and some truly stunning moments including the group stepping in time to build into a thunderous beat and an extending flowing skirt that billows about a lead dancer and cumulates in a perfectly time fan drop that has the crowd wild in enthusiastic applause.

Fantastic too is the arrival at the bullfight arena- a bright and colourful chaos of flags, marching, dancing and the impressive lighting of the CARMEN and bull outlines. And of course some fireworks, what’s Opera on the Harbour without a bit of pyrotechnics after all?

However there’s still that niggling feeling that Carmen lacked the sort of spectacle that we’re used to seeing from Handa. There are a few too many moments of a minimalistic stage and when the old “wow factor” favourites are brought out in the form of craned objects and people it all just feels a bit forced- that rather than it adding to the performance, it was included simply as a box to check. The rain too puts a slight dampener on things, not only for audience comfort but also for the concern of the artists. Too many times the tell tale sound of a wet slide was heard on the tilted stage and all too often I imagined the artist tripping and sliding right off the edge of the stage into the stormy harbor waters.

And the presence of a huntsman spider calmly crawling its way over my seat during interval just sort of hammered the nail in the coffin for me most unfortunately.

Handa does Carmen proud with some really stunning moments, but comparing to say Opera Australia’s 2016 Carmen directed by John Bell it falls a little short. And comparing to Handa’s previous years? I’m afraid it lost that bullfight.

Toreador, Toreador! Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour will present Carmen until the 23rd April. For more information and to book visit opera.org.au

The reviewer attended the opening night performance on the 24th March.

Photo credit (c) Hamilton Lund & Prudence Upton