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opera australia presents carmen on cockatoo island

Above: Richard Anderson as Zuniga and the Opera Australia Chorus. Image: Prudence Upton. Featured image : Mark Thompson’s set design for the Cockatoo Island event, with Sydney Harbour backdrop. Image : Hamilton Lund.

Imagine a world where all opera performances were al fresco, with yachts and ferries gliding past, with birds above in several formations adding to the vista and sonic tapestry and with audience eating food truck treats à la fois.

Now also imagine one where the social horrors or sexual inequalities often  found in operas in times past could be turned on their traditional heads by unique productions.

The current production of Bizet’s Carmen does just that. On a balmy night on this excellently appointed island a walk down an alley strewn with festival lights lt takes audience to the scaffolding set adorned with neon. A nearby Cockatoo Island heritage building is labelled as the cigarette factory where Carmencita and the women work prior to  parading past the leering soldiers on guard.

Carmen is an opera well known to many, where L’amour, that rebellious bird, does crazy things to women and even crazier things  to the bruised egos of men. In the milieu of Spanish civil unrest, and with men from the military or the bull fighting arena, girl meets boy, then meets a second boy and  then pays the consequences for leaving the first.

Opera Australia and director Liesel Badorrek have succeeded in retelling  this traditional Spanish village tale with a modern accent. This brings Lyndon Terracini’s artistic concept to a stunning, accessible, humorous and intensely attractive fruition.

The street-wise, edgy-urban guise for this version may not be every opera fan’s cup of tea. It does, however,  appear in a consistently  strong packaging. The visual,vocal and musical spectacle definitely entertains. This staging is a credit to all creatives involved. The cast have embraced the change and are obviously having a lot of fun with it.

Above: Alexander Hargreaves as Dancairo, Agnes Sarkis as Mercédès, Roberto Aronica as Don José and Danita Weatherstone as Micaëla. Image: Prudence Upton.

Forget Carmen with the bullfight, set in Spain, with  village dresses and gallant officer uniforms. Welcome in instead a stunt motorbike gang , 44 gallon drums stacked around the stage, chorus in punk-rock costumes including tights, animal print, leather and mesh. The set has a backing of shipping containers, is littered with wrecked cars, has props made from milk crates, and is flanked on each side with old-school tattoos illuminated in neon on the scaffolding.

The Opera Australia Orchestra led by Tahu Matheson brings us all the excitement and lyricism of Bizet’s score. The sound is sufficiently penetrating and crisp despite the need for amplification at this open-air location. Moments such as Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ still ring out with poignant truth at this gig and the chorus of soldiers still has the expectant commentary quality despite not being heard in a reverberant theatre setting with natural acoustics.

There is amazing energy and hard work from full cast and principals during major crowd scenes. Choreography from Shannon Burns sufficiently updates previous stage versions, and the challenge is well accepted by singers and dancers alike. Urban edginess from  the mob of anti-authoritarians use the stepped stage space well. Audiences will love the inclusion of street dancing styles and posing into many angry tableaux.

The entry sequence of toreador/ biker Escamillo is a great example of the frisson this cast, uninhibited in this setting, can deliver. This production serves to stunningly depict the hero status of soldiers and public figures. Escamillo is brought to us with a major fireworks display. This production later uses projections to highlight with modern  movie classification warning signage the violence against women about to come in the opera classic.

Above: Carmen Topciu as Carmen Image: Prudence Upton.

Any decent opera with a love triangle at its core relies quite heavily on the presentation of personalities within the threesome. And their individual or joint battles must be well sung.

Daniel Sumegi’s Escamillo is sufficiently larger than life. His vocal and emotional tessitura is set to glam-superstar level throughout and his movement about the stage has an Elvis-with-a-makeover vibe.

Sumegi does have considerable and believable chemistry with Carmen Topciu’s Carmen. Topciu relishes the chance to be Carmen the rebellious rock-chick. She shines, surrounded by tattoo design imagery of her character’s trademark roses, hearts and swords.

Her ‘Habanera’ amidst all the dark grittiness onstage was still hauntingly, achingly vulnerable in its nonchalance. It pierces the night sky, moves the  receptive audience and strikes one up for the bold girls on this island and in isolation anywhere.

Above: Escamillo and adoring fans. Pictured here, Alexander Sefton, who shares the role with Daniel Sumegi. Image: Prudence Upton.

Don José’s dark broodiness, busy mind and easily-angered, descent into dangerous behaviour with an out-of-control soul is compellingly  portrayed by Roberto Aronica. Musically and emotionally,  Aronica would excel in any production with any concept, costuming or design. His shaping of the bitter lines in the aria  ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ is something to look out for and enjoy is his character’s descent into explosive violence.

 Danita Weatherstone’s Micaëla is a beautiful  contrast to the powerhouse trio as well as the brash mob of anarchists and soldiers on stage. Her purity of intent and white dress when searching for Don José in the melée of Act 3 also offers a wonderful rendition of ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ (‘I say nothing that frightens me’). This role displays perhaps the clearest, opera house sounding vocal of the amplified night.

An emphasis on ‘red flags’, both in a relationship sense and echoing the original bullfighting Spanish story is an interesting element.  It can be seen from a trio of dancers manipulating huge flags at centre stage, to the revolution-red flag waved at the jilted, charging, vengeful Don José by the doomed Carmen later. Her ad-hoc cape, with rose-red bullfighting reference is a poignant statement on reversing the power play against women which is at the heart of this version’s arena of protest.

And what an arena it is! Absolutely a different arena for opera, with production tweaks to match.  it is ultimately an exciting one for the continuation of classic opera interpretation in the present climate.

The protest against the history of violence against women and documentary on the dangers of love anywhere is vividly presented in this riveting outdoor event. It is an event that has something for first time opera goers or seasoned fans alike. This is a compelling nite outdoors at the theatre.

 

 

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