Carmen on Cockatoo Island

Opera-Australia-Carmen-on-Cockatoo-Island-photo-by-Hamilton-LundThe weather could not have been more perfect as excited first-nighters, outlandishly dressed influencers, and the just plain curious, poured off the ferries, all eager to experience the brand-new Sydney event that is Carmen on Cockatoo Island.

Those arriving early enough to savour the full experience were greeted with the sight of hundreds of wooden benches laid out in rows providing an exceptional, and for many, an unfamiliar view of Sydney Harbour to enjoy with their champagne and paellas.

Director Liesel Badorrek was charged by Opera Australia to conceive and direct a new open-air production of the Bizet’s Carmen to launch this event. So taking advantage of the industrial aesthetic of the island, she decided to strip the opera of its Spanish setting and reset the events in a dystopian, rock ‘n roll world.

To this end her designer, Mark Thompson, designed a towering neon-lit industrial setting utilising scaffolding, shipping containers, graphitised oil drums, plastic milk crates and a pile of car wrecks, all occupying a huge stage which greeted the audience as they found their way to their seats.

The roar of a motor bike engine signalled the start of the overture, and as the ensemble, costumed in defiant, anti-establishment rag-tag costumes, flooded on to the stage, some engaged in aggressive argy-bargy, while motor bikes roared up and down the aisles creating a mood of danger and rebellion.

This mood was echoed in the idiosyncratic choreography of Shannon Burns which included a mimed sequence depicting the events of the opera ending with the heroine being stabbed to death. Another version of this sequence was repeated later.

For those who know the opera this interpolation was something of a spoiler as it negated the need to watch the rest of the opera. However, when the real climax does come, this spoiler is contradicted, because in this version, when Carmen finally does meet her death, it is not by stabbing, as had been forewarned twice, but by being strangled by Don Jose with the red silk scarf she had been conspicuously waving through several scenes.

Apart from destroying Bizet’s original powerful finale, it also felt remarkably inappropriate to introduce a political message at the end of the opera by projecting a huge sign warning the audience it was witnessing an act of violence, at the moment Carmen is murdered, then have the ensemble immediately flood the stage performing a sort of happy mega-mix as an introduction to the messily staged bows.

With her dark chocolatey contralto, Carmen Topicu was perfect for the role of Carmen. She sang magnificently offering a vocally fabulous Habanera, and gamely executed the direction, which often had her remaining on stage watching the events, when she really shouldn’t have been present. Her costumes did her no favours in that they gave her nothing to work with, and curiously, were different from the ones she is photographed wearing in the souvenir program photos.

To add to Topicu’s discomfort, the direction required her to portray a seductress who showed little real interest in her Don Jose, with no compunction about forcing him to desert his career to prove his love for her, and finally goading him into killing her to make good the death prediction she believed was foretold in the cards with which her friends were playing.

Roberto Aronica as Don Jose fared rather better, offering a vocal highlight with his flower song and providing a convincing depiction of Don Jose’s slide into uncontrollable obsession. Despite being hampered by a curious costume which seemed at odds with the rest of the production, Danita Weatherstone created an affecting Micaela, providing another vocal and visual highlight with her beautifully sung solo.

Showing every sign of having the best time letting his hair down, as well as providing the high point of the production, internationally acclaimed baritone, Daniel Sumegi, revelled in the rock-god staging of his Toreador’s Song, complete with excited dancers throwing undergarments and screaming so enthusiastically that they threatened to drown out the final chorus, which ended with the fireworks that now appear to have become essential elements for staging outdoor opera.

By now, with the removal of any signposts as to time or place, the storyline had become irrelevant; even so it did seem a bit odd that this rock-god was singing about his prowess in the bullring.

At this point the uneasy thought occurred that actually Carmen is not a rock opera, nor did it require any re-invention to make it fit that mould in the pursuit of novelty. With her magnificent outdoor production of this same work for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Gale Edwards proved that it was definitely possible to create a successful outdoor operatic production with plenty of spectacle without sacrificing artistic integrity.

Badorrek’s production is certainly spectacular. It is performed by an outstanding cast of singers and dancers whose work is enhanced by the excellent 40-piece orchestra under the direction of Tahu Matheson, who is conducting his first out-door opera.

While Cockatoo Island might not be opera’s happy place, Badorrek’s production sits among its surroundings very comfortably. As a unique event it will provide a memorable experience for the thousands attracted to the world heritage site for the first time, who might otherwise never attend an opera, and who are unlikely to carp about the details.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island
Eastern Apron and Bolt Wharf, Cockatoo Island (Sydney)
Performance: Friday 25 November 2022
Season continues to 18 December 2022
Information and Bookings:

Image: The Cast of Opera Australia’s 2022 production of Carmen on Cockatoo Island – photo by Hamilton Lund

Review: Bill Stephens OAM