Carmen – Cockatoo Island (NSW)
Conducted by Tahu Matheson. Directed by Liesel Badorrek.
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
Event Experience: Rating: 5 out of 5.
Carmen Production: Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
25 November–18 December 2022 Tickets: https://opera.org.au/productions/carmen-on-cockatoo-island/
Photo Credits: Hamilton Lund and Prudence Upton
Opera Australia know how to put on an event. Say what you want about Opera, Carmen on Cockatoo Island is a five-star experience that is sure to offer areas of satiation for the veterans and uninitiated of operatic theatre goers. Prosper Mérimée’s 19th century novella, Carmen, on which Bizet’s opera is based is full of whimsical romance, energetic rebellion and tales of fate and prophecy. Director Liesel Badorrek heaves Carmen into a new realm of realism by giving it a rock and roll makeover to spice up the script – Oh, and there’s motorbikes!
Bizet’s Carmen focuses on the heroine of the same name (Carmen Tompciu), a gypsy by birth, who lives with a band of smugglers in the mountains of Seville. After a foiled attempt to gain some illegal goods by the officer Don José (Roberto Aronica), Carmen and the officer start up a whirlwind romance, but the fiery Carmen refuses to have her freedom taken away. With Carmen’s interests being fleeting, José loses Carmen to the celebrity torero Escamillo (Daniel Sumegi), thus bubbling up ethics of jealousy, immorality, and lawlessness.
Set against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour, squawking seagulls, distant planes, party boats and a soft breeze create a unique experience to indulge in Bizet’s classical score with instantly recognisable orchestrations conducted invisibly by Tahu Matheson. Mark Thompson’s set and costume design captures the rustic and metallic feel of Cockatoo Island itself. From entering through the domineering warehouse doorways, walking into the arena, and surrounding yourself with dilapidated machinery, Thompson has managed to extend the production beyond the stage itself.
Thompson’s costumes harness Badorrek’s rock and roll aesthetic with a mixture of reds, leathers and studs that reflect in John Rayment’s lighting design. With the hundreds of lights on display, Rayment didn’t quite harness the capacity of their power. Sharp whites lit up the performance immensely in the darkening sky but changing lights on each beat of numbers like the glorious ‘Habanera’ seemed incongruous to the overall style of the opera itself.
Choreography by Shannon Burns was intense and spectacular when it was utilised, showing a range beyond the operatic singers from the Chorus. When it was fast, fluid, and intense, it was perfect, and when it was gone, it was sorely missed.
The added spectacle of motorbikes, whilst bringing the rebelliousness to the production, didn’t manage to add much besides a bit of wow factor. Using a motorbike as a bucking bull was perhaps the best used feature of the revving engines and Badorrek was clever enough to not let them contradict the harmonious score that echoed throughout the island.
Carmen Topciu brought a grounded zest of life to the titular character and provided a rich voice to Bizet’s score as she flounced the stage with an air of confidence and defiance to the notions of love thrust at her from Roberto Aronica’s Don José. Their chemistry never quite felt earned throughout Act One, but the tension imbued throughout Act Two mirrored the intensity of the score. Aronica’s highlights came from his passionate use of voice in moments of confrontation with Carmen and Escamillo.
This is perhaps the hottest-ticket experience in Sydney right now, with Opera at its core.
Daniel Sumegi’s toreador played as a rock-star icon, who’s entrance was enhanced by flying bras and whizz bang fireworks. The depth of control in his voice brought a strength of believability in his character.
Supporting characters such as Danita Weatherstone’s Micaela was performed with honesty and tonal strength, whereas Jane Ede and Agnes Sarkis brought a liveliness to their number on prophecies in marriage at the start of Act Two.
Projections highlighted above the amalgamation of used cars in Thompson’s set offered reflections of prophecies, themes of love and jealousy, and an oddly placed audience warning of “Violence Against Women” in the production. This seemed a misstep and one which could have been placed at the start of the performance, rather than create the jarring effect it did as we watched the tragic ending play out.
This is perhaps the hottest-ticket experience in Sydney right now, with Opera at its core. Whilst the production may have some misdirection that takes away from its impact and depth, there is enough to bring new audiences to Cockatoo Island to introduce them to the world of Opera. Veteran theatregoers will be awoken as to how to bring these age-old stories into a modern context, and if they don’t like it, there’s a decent view and atmosphere to enjoy in the meantime.
Top Tips about the event
Start your evening by booking the Opera Australia direct ferry from King Street Wharf for $20 return. It’s the quickest way to get to and from the island and offers stunning views of the harbour on the way.
Be sure to pack a jacket, even if it’s a bright, sunny day. The wind chill factor that sweeps Cockatoo Island can leave you shivering if you’re not properly prepared.
The seating in the auditorium are plain, plastic seats. So, if you have a fragile back, perhaps its best to pack a light pillow with you to last the duration of the performance.
Leave yourself enough time to get to your seats before the performance and after the intermission. The performance has to run on schedule due to noise laws and if you’re not back in time, you may miss a good deal of the performance!
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Creatives Conductor Tahu Matheson Director Liesel Badorrek Set & Costume Designer Mark Thompson Lighting Designer John Rayment Sound Designer Tony David Cray Choreographer Shannon Burns Assistant Director Warwick Doddrell Opera Australia Chorus Opera Australia Orchestra
Cast Carmen Carmen Topciu, Sian Sharp Don José Roberto Aronica, Diego Torre Escamillo Daniel Sumegi, Alexander Sefton Micaëla Danita Weatherstone, Rebecca Gulinello Frasquita Jane Ede, Esther Song Mercédès Agnes Sarkis Remendado Adam Player Dancairo Alexander Hargreaves Zuniga Richard Anderson Morales Haotian Qi