Opera Review: Carmen on Cockatoo Island, Opera Australia

A strong retelling of a timeless tale with always relevant social themes.

Opera Australia has left the confines of the Sydney Opera House or Concert Hall for the wilds of Cockatoo Island, now one of Sydney’s go-to arts venues. Opera-goers arrive by ferry and can follow guided walks around the island before enjoying the fading light as they perch at the outdoor bars and eateries that have been set up for the event. Yachts sailing by, seagulls hoovering up the pizza crumbs and jets flying overhead are all part of the experience and give Carmen on Cockatoo Island more of a rock concert vibe.

A classic rock playlist surrounds the audience, presaging the rock and roll ethos of the set, staging and costumes. The set really comes into its own once it gets fully dark and it’s silhouetted against the night sky. And, yes, there are even fireworks to make the night complete.

Designer Mark Thompson has given the set a grungy street feel, with beaten-up old cars and colourful milk crates for staging. ‘CARMEN’ is spelled out across the top in large neon lights for most of the performance. Curiously the E remains alight when the rest of the letters go out, one of a few missed audio and visual cues on the night. 

The opera begins boldly with three off-road motorbikes roaring around the audience; the stunt riders return later in the show, mechanical embodiments of the bulls that are at the heart of this very Spanish opera.

But all of this is just window dressing – we’re really here for Bizet’s superb music and on this night the fine vocals did not disappoint. There are two alternating casts, which are very clearly detailed in the program so you know exactly who is on stage. Australian mezzo-soprano Sian Sharp played the title role for this performance and really was excellent. Dressed as a Joan Jett-style rock chick, she strutted and pouted with passion, and sang with superb pitch and clarity.

This opera is all about sex and power, and Sharp clearly imbued Carmen with abundant attitude. Tenor Diego Torre was engaging as Don José, and bass-baritone Alexander Sefton gave a blistering performance as Escamillo.

Read: Dance review: Monsters

The program notes tell us that ‘this production takes place in a timeless version of Seville’ and the director’s note, by Liesel Badorrek, says it ‘plays in a cultural space, in an attitude, in an aesthetic of rebellion’.  Much as I like and applaud that ethos, the many very clear cultural references to time and place – 50s ra-ra skirts, 80s leather punk, snorting cocaine off the bar, contemporary street-cred hip-hop and so on – do inevitably tie it to a time and place.

But too much ‘stuff’ is really just a distraction for the audience. And this is a shame given the superb singing and excellent playing by the Opera Australia Orchestra under the baton of conductor Tahu Matheson. 

Curiously, the orchestra was playing in an adjacent building, rather than the traditional understage pit or more usual front-of-stage setting for outdoor performances, with a large projection of Matheson positioned at the back of the seating area. The sound mix and amplification were rather hard to discern at this performance, even allowing for the challenges of a windy outdoor setting. This did somewhat undermine the nuances in the score and lost some of little subtlety in the vocals, especially in the higher registers.

As always, the Opera Australia chorus gave a satisfying performance and appeared right at home with their punk-infused streetwear and prop ciggies, a nod to the cigarette factory that is central to this story. The dancers too were excellent, with edgy choreography by Shannon Burns.

Inevitably everyone is an expert when it comes to Carmen because it is performed so often and the highlights are so well-known. Opera fans have seen multiple productions, from purist performances to the most avant-garde, and people who have never been to an opera know the machismo of Escamillo’s Toreador Song and Carmen’s seductive Habanera from countless popular culture iterations. That makes staging a new production even more challenging.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island is a strong retelling of Carmen’s sad story, and as relevant as ever with its social and political themes, but it doesn’t quite achieve its artistic expectations.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island
Composer: Georges Bizet
Opera Australia
Sung in French with English surtitles
Liberetto: Ludovic Halévy/Henri Meilhac
Artistic Concept: Lyndon Terracini
Director: Liesel Badorrek
Conductor: Tahu Matheson

Tickets: $79-$149

Carmen on Cockatoo Island will be performed until 18 December 2022.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.