• Jill Ogai in the leading role of Carmen. Credit Daniel Boud
    Jill Ogai in the leading role of Carmen. Credit Daniel Boud

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 
Reviewed April 10

In 2022 the Australian Ballet performed their first work by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger - a 45-minute work called I New Then. As part of their 2024 season the Australian Ballet is currently performing their second Inger work – the Australian premiere of his Carmen in a season exclusive to Sydney. This two act version of Carmen is based on the original story from Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella, which was also the basis for Georges Bizet’s famous 1875 opera of the same name. However, there are significant differences between them.

Jill Ogai (centre) with Artists of the Australian Ballet. Credit Daniel Boud.

While Bizet’s iconic music will be easily recognisable to audiences whether or not they have seen the opera in full, to audiences familiar with the opera this new orchestration (a joint effort, as some of Bizet's music is orchestrated by Rodion Shchedrin and other sections by Alvaro Dominguez Vasquez, with additional original music by Marc Alvarez) is quite different; resulting in a much darker, eerier atmosphere which is brought to life by the Opera Australia Orchestra. This is not Bizet’s nineteenth century romanticised version of Spain but something altogether bleaker, stripped back and far more modern. But for the ruffled mini skirts worn by the female dancers, the iconic lipstick red of Carmen’s costume and the Spanish melodies in Bizet’s score you wouldn’t even necessarily recognise the location as Spain. The set design (by Curt Allen Wilmer and Leticia Gañan) features multi-sided industrial looking set pieces which can be moved into a range of configurations as the story progresses. And their materiality provides concrete, textured and mirrored surfaces which alternately obscure or reflect the characters at different points throughout the work.

By going back to the original novella and making visible the violence, criminality and obsessive desire encapsulated in Mérimée’s construct, Johan Inger’s version of Carmen is different to previous theatrical versions of Carmen but it does explore the toxic machismo of the central relationship between Carmen and Don Jose with a type of gritty realism that delivers a punch straight to your core.

Marcus Morelli (centre) with Artists of the Australian Ballet. Credit Daniel Boud.

In the lead roles of Carmen and Don Jose, principal artists Jill Ogai and Callum Linnane both danced superbly. Ogai utterly convincing as a proud woman who refuses to be conquered - no matter the cost - and Linnane as the initially straight figure who becomes corrupted by the intensity of his own passions. Marcus Morelli (Torero) and Brett Chynoweth (Zuniga) both danced and acted well while Lilla Harvey (Boy) seemed to be a reflection of Don Jose’s younger, more innocent self and a foil to the dark jealousy and anger that overtakes him towards the ballets end. The figures in black that appear throughout the work were dramatically effective in their faceless anonymity. They could be interpreted in different ways, but I saw them primarily as indicative of premonition or fate as well as showing a clear association with death.

Most of Inger’s choreography appears to prioritise a looseness of style and expressiveness over technical virtuosity and control. It is more naturalistic and grounded than ballet technique, with few overt references to flamenco dance, but he has a particularly intuitive grasp of the way emotions can travel through the body with an emphasis on the dynamic execution of movements in contrasting and unanticipated ways.

Callum Linnane and Jill Ogai. Credit Daniel Boud.

The Australian Ballet’s production of Carmen runs until the 27th April at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House and is well worth seeing for audiences who like their ballet on the dark side. You’ll get even more out of it if you have time to read (or even just to skim over) Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella before seeing the show. It’s not a long read and, due to its age, copyright has expired and English translations are freely available online.


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