Arriving at the entrance to Handa Opera’s production of Carmen on the Sydney Harbour foreshore instantly feels like a special occasion. The red and black themed walkway leads you down towards Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and transports you to a small Spanish village that features several al fresco tavernas overlooking the always-on backdrop of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.

Opera Australia's production of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Carmen. Photo by Hamilton Lund.
Opera Australia's production of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Carmen. Photo by Hamilton Lund.

With the gates opening a couple of hours before the 7.30pm performance, it’s well worth getting into the spirit of things by enjoying the wide choice of offerings that include Mediterranean fare such as tapas, paella, Andalusian chicken, and much more at fast-moving cantinas dotted around the venue.

In the exclusive Platinum Club you can enjoy indoor creature comforts with you pre-performance dinner or buffet, and interval cheese plates or desserts; and it gives you somewhere to retreat to if the weather is inclement. Another option is champagne and oysters – perfect for a special date night.

Josè Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Josè Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen in Opera Australia's production of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Carmen. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Soon the alarm sounds and we’re seated in anticipation, marvelling at the scenery, sangria in hand, when the stage lights up into exuberant flame-red life with operatic tones layered over the Spanish back beat.

And just like that we’re whirling through the world of seductress Carmen (Josè Maria Lo Monaco), unassuming soldier Don José (Andeka Gorrotzategi), smitten villager Micaëla (Natalie Aroyan) and the enthralling toreador Escamillo (Luke Gabbedy). The Habanera has toes tapping and heads nodding.

Jane Ede as Frasquita, Sian Pendry as Carmen, Margaret Trubiano as Mercédès and Dancers. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Jane Ede as Frasquita, Sian Pendry as Carmen, Margaret Trubiano as Mercédès and Dancers. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Unless your opera-sung French is up to scratch, the occasional glance at the simple subtitles in both English and Chinese help you keep pace with the fast-moving storyline – or you can choose to be swept away.

The vibrant colours, the music (the impeccable orchestra hidden beneath the angled stage), the set (don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled!), the costumes (20th century Spain meets 50s Hollywood glamour), and, of course, the often heart-stopping, goosepimple-giving voices of the leading opera singers equate to an extravagant feast for the senses.

The interval provides enough time for a comfort break and to bring a cup of tea/glass of sangria back to your seat, and then the pace kicks up another notch.

Opera Australia's production of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Carmen. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Opera Australia's production of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Carmen. Photo by Prudence Upton.

From start to finish, the second half is a pure spectacle of colour, dancing, tumbling and passion. When the bullfighter Escamillo is primping himself in front of his adoring fans, the audience engagement heightens as perhaps the most well-known piece of music from Carmen carries out across the Harbour: The Toreador.

Escamillo has a pinch of Vegas Elvis about him and when the crowd turns to watch the imagined bullfight playing out across Sydney Harbour, we, the audience, are left with the play of passion between Carmen and jilted lover Don José.

All this, and fireworks, too.

Handa Opera’s production of Carmen is on until April 23.

For tickets or more information head to opera.org.au