Review: State Opera South Australia Carmen in the Square

A touch of Seville in Adelaide’s Victoria Square from State Opera South Australia.

Helen Sherman in Carmen in the Square. Image by Soda Street Productions.

‘If you haven’t seen Carmen, it’s a tragedy.’ So proclaimed the artwork on the fence enclosing Adelaide’s Victoria Square Tarntanyangga for State Opera SA’s first outing as a ‘picnic’ event.

With the Square neatly divided in two, the seated patrons were down the front (ticket prices up to $290) and the picnic patrons were at the back (general admission ticketing $29).  And the Adelaide audience was enthusiastic, selling out this one-night-only performance.

Carmen in the Square was something of an experiment by the new leadership team at SOSA aimed at taking opera to a broader audience. Inevitably this is a tricky strategy that runs the risk of pleasing nobody, potentially alienating the traditional audience and not impressing the newcomers. ‘Brave and courageous,’ as Sir Humphrey might have said to artistic director Stuart Maunder AM and executive director Yarmila Alfonzetti.

It’s not hard to see why Carmen is the world’s most performed opera. It has love and death, patriotism and passion, brilliant arias, and superb melodies. These are the greatest hits of the operatic canon and guarantee the name Georges Bizet will live on. His last and most successful opera, Bizet died on the night of its 33rd performance in June 1875.

The opera was performed semi-staged, the giant scaffolding of the temporary stage encasing just a few bare risers, looking like aged bleachers from a sporting ground. The costuming was also toned down with little of the striking colours of sunny Spain – ‘drab’ was the verdict of one local reviewer. And the apparent lack of a follow-spot meant the principals were often singing in the shadows. 

These key directorial decisions are hard to fathom especially given the aim of impressing a new opera audience. Few people, apart from the genuine aficionados, go to the opera purely for the music. Opera is really a grandiose form of musical theatre and it’s the stunning costumes and lively sets that make it a visual as well as aural experience. And sadly even the weather gods were off-side so instead of being ‘transformed into sultry Spain for one summer night’ the patrons were a little cold and damp. This was not helped by the half-hour queues for the ladies’ loos and the 40-minute wait to purchase a $50 bottle of wine.

On stage, the role of Carmen was ably sung by mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman (who is ‘much sort-after’ [sic] according to the program notes). Sherman’s Carmen was strong and sassy but not so convincing as opera’s most famous femme fatale. Tenor James Egglestone handled Don José with ease capturing some of his inner torment and baritone Morgan Pearse was excellent as Escamillo, thrilling to the much-loved ‘Toreador Song’ in Act 2. The outstanding performer was soprano Emma Pearson who gave real warmth and humanity to her delivery of Micaela and hit all the right notes in her stunning Act 3 aria. All the key toe-tapping melodies were there and, as always, the State Opera Chorus were in fine voice, bringing a real energy to their every scene. The amplification seemed a little tame, especially in Act 1.  A much bolder sound would have enhanced the outdoor operatic atmosphere.

With no pit, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra was seated in front of the stage. Concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto and the players did a fine job under the enthusiastic leadership of Oliver von Dohnányi, an opera conductor of considerable international acclaim. The prelude was a delight and they gave a crisp, clear account throughout.

The opera was sung in its traditional French with English subtitles on the big screens. This meant many people were actually watching the screens side-of-stage and not the action on stage. The linking dialogue between the songs was spoken in English (Austray’an English!) which was a little jarring.

State Opera SA should be applauded for taking it to the streets but this was not the ideal way to go.  I’m told many people in the General Admission area could not see or hear clearly and quite a few chose to leave at interval. Unfortunately the various staging decisions meant this Carmen did not give anyone a real taste of the wonderful experience that live opera can offer. 

3 stars ★★★


State Opera South Australia
State Opera Chorus
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Oliver von Dohnányi
Director: Stuart Maunder
Carmen – Helen Sherman
Don Jose – James Egglestone
Escamillo – Morgan Pearse
Micaela – Emma Pearson
Frasquita – Desiree Frahn
Mercedes – Bethany Hill
Morales/Dancairo – Samuel Dundas
Remendado – Adam Goodburn
Zuniga – Wade Kernot

23 March 2019
Victoria Square, Adelaide

Dr Diana Carroll
About the Author
Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the SMH, the Oz, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.