Sydney Festival: Il Tabarro

Michelle East
12th Jan 2024

Summer. Sydney. Festival. Three of my favourite words combine to make January my favourite month of the year. No need for New Year resolutions. My annual challenge is to attend one event each day for the duration of the Sydney Festival. A resolution easy to keep when the organisers schedule 38 free events. 38 free events! Go all in, bath the brain in the oxygen of new experiences, connect with friends old and new. Start 2024 refreshed, a little deeper in love with our beautiful city.

The jewels of the Sydney Festival program are the site-specific events. Celebrate Sydney with first class performances in stunning locations. This week the Victorian Opera presents Il Tabarro outside the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Puccini's opera Il Tabarro is the first in his Il Trittico triptych of one act operas. Puccini takes inspiration from Grand-Guignol's play about the hardships of stevedoring. Nautical and Parisian motives infuse the libretto and score, to create a one act opera centred on a love triangle with a violent end.

The logistics of settling the audience into a non-conventional site are handled with aplomb. We tuck into the pre-ordered antipasti box with a glass of wine while the sun sets. A roving accordionist has inspired a couple of wags to get up and dance. If the French themed piped music has us thinking we could be in Paris, the city skyline anchors back home. Joyful anticipation is a counterintuitive mindset to be in. Il Tabarro is the darkest of the Il Trittico triptych.

Puccini set Il Tabarro in Paris 1918. Director Constantine Costi takes full advantage of the site, transporting the action to Sydney and forward in time to 1930s depression-era.  Most of the action takes place aboard the Carpentaria, a historic lightship built in 1917. Spoiler alert: keep an eye out for a rowboat and action on the nearby lighthouse. The Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra plays on a barge. The audience observes from the dock at close range. The city skyline looms menacingly above.

A director could take a straightforward line of who is to blame for the inevitable violent murder. Costi gifts us a nuanced, empathetic exploration of the circumstances and psyche. The performance feels intimate despite its grand setting. All three principles deliver performances with vitality and naturalness that draws us closer and keeps us in their grip.

Barge-owner Michele is troubled by the loss of his wife's affection since the death of their son. Simon Meadows gives him a sense of dignity.  His wife, Giorgetta, pines for an escape from the stresses of an itinerant life and her loss. Olivia Cranwell absolutely shines as Giorgetta.  Stevedore Luigi is the unfortunate lover providing hope of more stability.  James Egglestone is passionate palpable.  There is ambiguity about who is the villain here.   The relationship between stevedore Talpa (Stephen Marsh) and his rag-picker wife Frugola (Syrah Torii) is literally elevated. A beacon of hope.  Fellow stevedoring Tinca (Joshua Morton-Galea) also gains the aria of the organ grinder.

Costi is no stranger to directing outdoor performances including Opera Australia’s Handa series. This experience clearly pays forward. His creative team nails the technical difficulties of the site. There is no unevenness of sound or distracting disconnect between action and music. The action feels natural and intimate. It is Puccini, so the score is wonderful and the arias and duets sublime. Conductor Simon Bruckard keeps the swell, the tugboat, the organ-grinder alive and insync. A flock of seagulls with exquisite timing provided an impromptu chorus.

So much action, emotion and fine performances in one hour. Proving there is more to Puccini than La Boheme.

There is a waitlist for free tickets for performances 9 - 13 January. Watch the free live stream 12 January as part of the At Home digital program.

Australia Opera is presenting Il Trittico during July 2024 at the Sydney Opera House. Another chance to experience Il Tabarro under the direction of Constantine Costi.  Simon Meadows and Olivia Cranwell reprise their roles as Michele and Giorgetta.