Opera Australia’s grungy, noisy take on Bizet’s classic

Carmen on Cockatoo Island
Eastern Apron and Bolt Wharf Cockatoo Island, Opera Australia
November 25
Until December 18
★★★

With a ferry ride at sunset, a parade of passing yachts, a crisp spring breeze and the finest sliver of silver around a new moon, this production on Cockatoo Island promised a rare pleasure outing with opera as the pretext.

As counterfoil to the beauties of nature, Liesel Badorrek’s production, with grungy set and costume design by Mark Thompson, picked up on the site’s World-Heritage listed industrial ruins, adorning the purpose-built elevated flat stage with wrecked cars, oil barrels and gang violence.

Carmen at Cockatoo Island, an Opera Australia production.

Carmen at Cockatoo Island, an Opera Australia production.Credit:Hamilton Lund

Prosper Mérimée’s 19th century novella, Carmen, on which Bizet’s opera is based, is a classic of Romantic Realism, but the motorbike races in the aisles, exhaust fumes and jarring rock music through the speakers whenever the live music stopped seemed to offer more reality than some patrons had bargained for. The bikes’ first entry generated frisson. When they revved their engines for subsequent appearances, one started to think not only, “Is this really safe?” but also, “Is this really adding to human understanding in a way that justifies the carbon emissions?”

Notwithstanding unforgiving amplification, Carmen Topciu sang the title role with a strongly colored rich sound and captured the character’s unapologetic, uncomplaining confidence, which turns to defiance and then fateful courage at the end. The seduction scene with Roberto Aronica as Don José was less persuasive, lacking intimate chemistry, but the later conflicts were imbued with brooding tension.

The final scene, however, seemed a miscalculation. A warning projected on the set that the production contained depictions of violence against women was obviously too late to be of use to people for whom such things might be triggering, and the suggestion that it was there for theatrical effect rather than support only added to its problematic nature.

Carmen Topciu as Carmen in Opera Australia's 2022 production on Cockatoo Island.

Carmen Topciu as Carmen in Opera Australia’s 2022 production on Cockatoo Island.Credit:Opera Australia/Prudence Upton

As Don José, Roberto Aronica was particularly strong, as indeed this character must be, in the moments of highest passion – the intense outpouring in Act II and in the fateful confrontation of Act IV. Daniel Sumegi, as the Toreador Escamillo, made a rock-star entrance amid a rapturous, bra-throwing mosh-pit frenzy, which he seemed to quite enjoy. The strongly projected dominance through the sound system took away some of his own vocal agency, but he maintained vocal warmth, and the character’s generosity of spirit permeated both voice and persona.

Danita Weatherstone’s plain-skirt, sensible-shoe Micaela was truly voiced, though over-amplification robbed her arias of their touching tonal purity. Jane Ede and Agnes Sarkis made an engaging and lively pair as Frasquita and Mercédès balanced against flinty well-projected vocal performances from Alexander Hargreaves and Adam Player as gang leaders Dancairo and Remendado. Haotian Qi had promising clarity and finished edge to his voice as Morales and Richard Anderson sang the superior office Zuniga with aptly autocratic woolliness.

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