Opera review: Il Tabarro, Sydney Festival

Ambitiously staged aboard a lightship, this production struggled to stay afloat.
Il Tabarro. Four opera singers dressed in period nautical gear sing from the prow of a ship.

Although the Victorian Opera took a big swing with its ambitious open-air production of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, the nautical noir struggled to stay afloat.

This was not director Constantine Costi’s first time bringing this one-act piece to life, as he initially staged it in 2016 at a Newtown warehouse. Seeing it performed on an 107-year-old boat, the Carpentaria, docked outside the Australian National Maritime Museum, with an adjacent barge hosting the orchestra, it’s clear that even imagining such an idea was commendable. Although Costi and conductor Simon Bruckard attempt to bring light, shade and spectacle to the piece, Il Tabarro (which translates to The Cloak) is admittedly fairly narrow in scope and emotional depth. 

Originally staged in 1918, the opera’s story follows a handful of dock workers on the River Seine who fall on hard times. Work is harder to come by, and they pine to return to their homeland and buy a house in the countryside. When desperation sets in, Luigi plans to kill Giorgetta’s husband Michele, and have her leave with him. And so, the story sails into a whirlpool of love affairs and arguments that lead to a tragic end.

Unfortunately, Costi’s staging was often clumsy and the dramatic moments often didn’t hit as hard as they could have due to the unusual set. Moments that should have come off as interesting or exciting ended up being obscured or presented in a way that was confusing. By bringing the opera into its own setting, it raised a sense of formal verisimilitude, fusing text and stage together, but this meant the audience lost so much theatrical inventiveness and creativity that could be found within the text. Even the costumes by Sabina Myers felt as if they were not using the vitality of the text to infuse the designs, opting instead for very banal and uncreative looks.

On the technical side, the crew managed to make every voice heard clearly and with a resonant crispness that allowed the audience to savour the powerful, well-trained voices. Olivia Cranwell, who played the role of Giorgetta, shone the brightest. Her dynamic voice was powered by a nuanced performance with a clear and direct emotional through line.

Read: Musical review: Grease: The Musical, Her Majesty’s Theatre

It is unfortunate that a production with such promise was let down in such a way. Puccini’s Il Tabarro may be sailing high above the waters, but Costi’s latest production sank.

Il Tabarro
Sydney Festival
Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Librettist: Giuseppe Adami
Conductor: Simon Bruckard
Director: Constantine Costi
Production Designer: Sabina Myers
Lighting Designer: Matthew Marshall

Movement/Assistant Director: Shannon Burns
Sound Designer: Tony David Cray

Cast: James Egglstone, Olivia Cranwell, Simon Meadows, Stephen Marsh, Syrah Torii, Joshua Morton-Galea

Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra

Il Tabarro was performed until 13 January 2024.

Matthew Collins is a writer, director, and occasional actor whose works extends through literature, theatre, film, politics, gallery work, and critical writings. He is currently studying a Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership at UNSW. You can find him on Instagram @thematthewcollins