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Review: New Zealand Opera's Carmen

Towering Spanish-mission style walls, stairways and gantries set the scene in the Isaac Theatre Royal, but with yawning cracks and faded paintwork on display, it’s clear that this is a town that has seen better days. This is the faded Seville setting for New Zealand Opera’s latest production of Carmen, which despite dropping us into a world of lecherous soldiers, desperate bandits, and hard-scrabble townsfolk manages to bring plenty of glamour to a cold Christchurch evening.

Chorus Director Lindy Hume’s production pulses with seedy energy, with Carmen and her lover-then-stalker-ex Don José each doing their best to navigate their way through a world of criminals, corruption and creeps. New Zealand star James Harrison sets the scene early on with an appropriately oily performance as sex-pest soldier Moralès, hassling good-girl Micaëla as she arrives to look for Don José. It’s a world where it seems everyone is out to get what they can get for themselves, but soaring through it all is Nino Surguladze’s Carmen, for whom the environment of literal gypsies, tramps and thieves represents the chance to live a free, unrestrained live. All eyes are on the smouldering, magnetic performance of Surguladze, who captivates not only with her spectacular vocal performance, but perfectly encapsulates the untameable Carmen’s approach to life, unafraid to use her intelligence, womanly wiles and contempt for societal conventions to get what she wants, and to heck with the consequences. It’s the definition of a star turn that aptly illustrates why she’s in demand all over the world. Carmen and Don Jose Tom Randle does a fine job of managing to make Don José an almost pitiable figure, even if to modern sensibilities the audience might be wishing that Carmen had just slapped him with a restraining order. By the opera’s claustrophobic final act, his intense performance reflects a ruined, haunted figure, unable to keep up with Carmen but tragically unable to let go of his pride, either. James Clayton’s smooth-as-silk toreador Escamillo is another highlight, his supreme aura of confidence in stark contrast to the downward-spiralling Don José, with his performance of the famous Toreador Song a musical highlight in a score that sees an on-form Christchurch Symphony Orchestra belting out what amounts to a non-stop parade of hits. Emma Pearson is also a standout as Micaëla, the one truly angelic figure amidst all the low humanity on display.


Some very effective moments of staging – Carmen handcuffed to a chair but still utterly in control, Don José sitting starkly in the light from a doorway after the death of his mother, the women of Seville comprehensively turning the tables on their oglers at Lillas Pastia’s Tavern, and Don José a lone figure of dismay at the exuberant bullfight parade – all only add to the drama and feeling. By the time the opera reaches its abrupt and violent conclusion, as an audience we’re all a bit charged up – heading out to the cooler Theatre Royal side passages feels like being jerked back into a more humdrum real world from the brooding and emotional Spanish heat.

Images: Marty Melville

New Zealand Opera: Carmen
Isaac Theatre Royal
15, 20, 22 July 7:30pm, 18 July 6:30pm

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