Carmen On Cockatoo Island

Rebecca Varidel
26th Nov 2022

For those more familiar with music festivals than opera, Carmen on Cockatoo Island might just be your perfect introduction to the once hallowed realms. Decked out with stacked milk crates, crashed cars and yellow oil cans the Carmen outdoor set, even at first glance, gives a nod of what is to come.

With the performing roles of the traditional Carmen transported into the present you won't see any Spanish ruffled dresses, mantillas, gilets or sombreros, although you will see a corporal's army hat. The updated costumes of rock stars and rock 'n' roll rebels are just the beginning of the changes that are made to the staging in this new Opera Australia production directed by Liesel Badorrek.

As the lights dim, we first hear not the strum of the orchestra but the vvrrmmm of revving motorcycles. Perhaps there has never been a more sensational start to an opera. 

Is that Carmen or Amy Winehouse we're wondering? With her dark hair piled high and curls trailing down her back, skin tight black vinyl pants and tattoed arm, it is the award-winning singing of mezzo soprano Sian Sharp that confirms. Perhaps given the richness of her opera performance history, the clarity and resonance of her singing should be no surprise. Yet it is the posture and presence of Sian Sharp that declares she is Carmen: I am who I am and not beholden to any man. Sian Sharp struts the stage like a rock star indeed. Her chin lifted. Her legs firm, her hips thrust slightly forward in command. She leaves us no doubt. Even in the last scene. In truth, she couldn't have sung or played the new Carmen better.

With all this talk about new and modern, let me reassure even the most seasoned opera lover of the musical quality of Carmen on Cockatoo Island (if you ignore the occasional squawking seagulls at sunset). This Carmen is my fifth different production, and of course I've also seen many other operas over the years. So hand on heart, I bow to the outstanding performance of Diego Torre who was the epitome of every aspect of Don José. His acting was just superb as the love sick corporal, as the doting to forlorn discarded lover, to jealous rage. But I could have closed my eyes and just listened to his voice which was not only pitch perfect, and gloriously beckoning, but also portrayed all of these emotions vocally as he stepped through them. It's a very long time since I've seen a performance of this calibre. Maybe it was from another José, visiting tenor José Carreras just after his recovery from cancer, when his singing moved me to tears.

Indeed, in Carmen on Cockatoo Island all four of the leading roles were outstanding. Bravi!

A Toreador was once a hero, worshipped by the crowds. Killing bulls is no longer palatable let alone fashionable. Who replaces that hero now? With one glove, and leather jacket and an adoring crowd, Alexander Sefton commands us as Escamillo. Vocally he hits the notes. Physically we are taken to that music festival. The panties being thrown in the audience were a bit over the top for me, although I get it. This isn't just any rock singer. He is a rock star.

It would be challenging not to love (and pity) Italian/Australian Rebecca Gulinello as the pious Micaëla. Even before her character is portrayed to us, we are given by her costuming, the 1950s bluebird cardigan and petticoated full skirt, the contrast to the rock rebels. Her clothes speak chastity, her eyes of innocence. Her gestures are demure. Her voice serenades us hopefully, dutifully and with longing for her betrothed. I'm convinced.

I have a confession to make. As a dance aficionado - classical ballet to contemporary - it is rare for me to be excited by the choreography and dance performances of opera. It hasn't happened before; but there's a first time for everything. I truly was so excited by this choreography that was first and foremost relevant to this production. The dancing was edgy and exhilarating, owned the stage and the audience. Told the story. Beyond that its execution was faultless and its blending with the exquisite opera ensemble seamless. I wish I had the words to really convey how fabulous the choreography and dancing is in this production. You may not notice it, because you're not meant to see it as a stand alone. Yet take the time to observe it and see how much it adds to this new Carmen on Cockatoo Island.

Finally, what is also most impressive in updating this new 2022 Carmen is the visuals that support the traditional Bizet score. They declare: we've come a long way baby. The bull is kissed on the forehead as the final act of a toreador. Behind the final scene the film image states a warning. Yes, we understand now. Violence against others, whether animals or humans is not OK.

Our Sydney Scoop review by Rebecca Varidel is from the final dress rehearsal before the Opera Australia season commenced.

Leading Opera Australia roles for Carmen have alternative dates for performers. Check the Opera Australia website for details.