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Review: Carmen at Cockatoo Island

Review by Rosie Niven

The Carmen experience is more than just attending an opera. From the moment you step onto the ferry to head to Cockatoo Island, the bubbling excitement is contagious. Arriving at the industrial remains of the World Heritage site, the sea of curious theatregoers flood the pavement in search of the space where Bizet’s tale of fate and freedom will be shared against the backdrop of the glistening Sydney Harbour. For even the non-opera goers amongst the crowd, the experience is a mesmerising one.

The scandalised opera tells the story of Carmen, a cigarette factory worker whose charm captures the attention of many men, but whose own attention can be held by none. She seduces a brigadier, Don Jose, convincing him to desert the military to be with her. What follows is a fiery and complicated narrative about unrequited love that ends in Carmen’s death at the hands of the man that supposedly loves her.

Carmen Topciu and Roberto Aronica lead the cast as Carmen and Don Jose, depicting their tumultuous relationship with vibrancy and confidence. Where this duo faltered was in their chemistry - the love and lust so often seen between these two characters appeared to be missing, revoking the driving force in the narrative and leaving the audience wanting more. Two standout performances that captured the audience with their vocal clarity and power were Danita Weatherstone’s Micaela and Haotian Qi’s Morales. Particularly striking was Weatherstone’s Aria that echoed hauntingly throughout the harbour.

As a classical opera, Carmen faces the challenge that many of its counterparts do as they struggle to appeal to a modern audience - the death of the titular female character is traditionally romanticised, framed through the lens of a crime of passion, and leaving audiences with the feeling of ‘she had it coming’. In our current landscape, there is a trend of moving away from these narratives and towards something more for our female characters than a gratuitously violent death. This is something Director Liesel Badorrek has fought against in this new production - rather than a passionate death at the hands of her lover, we are forced to witness a harrowing murder and sit in the silence of the aftermath, without the showmanship that the rest of the production is offered. This is supported by flashing warning signs of the violence to be depicted, a direct acknowledgement of the gravity of what is to come, yet without sufficient warning to look away.

The push to modernise Carmen is further reflected in Mark Thompson’s dazzling set, utilising the industrial remains of Cockatoo Island such as cranes and barrels to plunge us into the world of the revolution. The sounds of passing boats and seagulls flying overhead and live motorcycle stunt performers (although some of these stunts were missed by those not in the front row) add to the vivacity of the experience, creating a surround sound effect that is truly mesmerising. Topped off with fireworks that erupt from the harbour during a pivotal scene, it’s hard to feel that this night on Cockatoo Island is anything less than a unique and magical experience.

The Carmen team’s work to keep opera alive for a new audience is admirable, but the challenge lies in it sitting between two polarities: for the traditional Opera Australia audience, this production may have strayed too far from the essence of opera, and for the new audiences, it may not have moved far enough from the stagnant traditions of opera that are starting to lose their appeal. However, in order to keep this art form alive, these boundaries need to continue to be pushed, giving audiences fresh perspectives on narratives that no longer feel relevant in our modern landscape. It is so refreshing to see this change, and something I hope to see more of from Badorrek and the rest of the team.

Image Credit: Opera Australia


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