With Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH to cognoscenti) now a successful fixture in the annual calendar, it was perhaps inevitable that Opera Australia would try for further events outside the Joan Sutherland Theatre. The result is Carmen on Cockatoo Island, the brainchild of recently departed artistic director Lyndon Terracini. It’s an appealing concept: a short ferry ride from the CBD to the former penal colony and present-day UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the opera stage positioned at the water’s edge, facing sandstone cliffs and relics of the island’s once-flourishing shipyards. With an opera crammed with surefire hits at the other end, how could it not be a success?

Roberto Aronica (Don José) and Carmen Topicu (Carmen)
© Prudence Upton

The post-industrial feel of the location extended to the set, which was dominated by piles of demolished cars. In place of the usual faux-Spanish exoticisms, director Liesel Badorrek opted for an edgier aesthetic, one influenced by rock 'n' roll rebelliousness. Motorbikes revved up and down the aisles at strategic points; Mark Thompson’s costumes were as colourful as the fever-dream of an 80s pop-video stylist; and Carmen delivered her Act 2 gypsy song as if on a nightclub podium, complete with backing vocals from her sidekicks. All that was retained from the original mise-en-scène was the backdrop of the bullfight in Act 4, with a stunt motorcyclist acting the part of the bull and charging a red flag at one point.

Being out of doors, singers and instrumentalists were of course amplified, but the balance of the mixture was better than it sometimes has been in the past. If the singers were occasionally upstaged by the squawks of seagulls overhead or the sail of a passing yacht, it was only momentarily distracting. The orchestral musicians were somewhere out of sight, with the conductor visible to the singers via a large screen behind the audience. Aside from a couple of moments when stage and pit got out of sync, Tahu Matheson coordinated things well. The flute and harp duet in the entr’acte at the start of Part 2 was particularly pleasing, but the orchestra acquitted itself with credit on the whole.

Carmen Topicu took on the role she was born (or at least, christened) to play, and rose to the demands well. She caressed the phrases in the famous Habanera and Seguidilla with creamy warmth and controlled power. Perhaps her acting in the final scene could have conveyed something – defiance, fear, anger, pride? – instead of matter-of-fact fatalism before she was eventually strangled. (There was no stabbing, despite this being mimed on two occasions by dancers enacting the love-triangle in dumb-show earlier on.)

Roberto Aronica (Don José) and Danita Weatherstone (Micaëla)
© Prudence Upton

Comparative newcomer Danita Weatherstone shone as Micaëla, especially in her Act 3 solo Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante. She possesses a pure tone, but with a blossom to the sound that made her both a sonic as well as a dramatic contrast to Carmen. Carmen’s companions, Jane Ede (as Frasquita) and Agnes Sarkis (Mercédès) dovetailed beautifully together in their fortune-telling number. A highlight was the quintet in which they were joined by Carmen and the smugglers Dancaire and Remendado: this had some exceptionally tight ensemble singing. The latter two roles were played by Alexander Hargreaves and Adam Player; both were good, with the former a real standout in terms of precise pitch and diction.

In general, however, the female soloists had a better night than their male counterparts. Roberto Aronica gave a workmanlike performance as Don José without really eliciting our sympathies. His character was seduced by Carmen as soon as she gave him the flower, and consequently was unable to concentrate on Micaëla in the following scene, amusingly staring at the temptress off to the side.

Escamillo was taken on by bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi, who appeared in garb suggesting a cross between Tom Jones and an ageing Elvis. Playing the character as a rockstar with fawning groupies, he delivered the famous Toreador Song with gusto, although whether it was the best vocal fit for a singer whose credits include roles like Hagen is debatable. Richard Anderson was his typical stentorian self as Zuniga, and Haotian Qi a perfectly serviceable Morales.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island
© Hamilton Lund

It would not be an Opera Australia outdoor production without fireworks, of course, and these were appropriately cued to the end of the Toreador Song. Maybe there weren’t the hoped-for fireworks in the human interactions, but there’s probably enough there to send most punters home happy.