Carmen on Cockatoo Island Under the Stars. Wouldn’t you love it? A re-imagined Carmen, set in modern times? Enjoying the warm night sky just a few days before the official start of summer? Arriving by ferry, with food and drink venues? And, as Opera Australia said in their promotional materials – you can glam it up with evening gowns and tuxes, or keep it casual. Yep, sounded romantic and wonderful and such an unusual thing to do – back in May, when we purchased the tickets.
But summer doesn’t know that it missed the train. It is supposed to arrive shortly! It was only in the low 60s Fahrenheit last night in Sydney. Traveling to an unprotected island in Sydney Harbor, with wind and rain, made it feel that it was in the low 50s. That’s right – it rained on the audience AND the performers, at the beginning of Act I for a short time, and after Intermission for an extended time. We could see the rain clearly as it fell in front of the spotlights on the stage and then the steam moving slowing across the stage as it rose off the hot lights. As the rain fell and built up on the stage we watched the performers splash as they walked through puddles, splash as they danced, splash as the dirt bike roved the front of the stage with a bull’s head on the handlebars (yes, it was an improvised bullfight!), and Carmen splashed when she hit the stage, dead. Quite dramatic. It was as if the rain was a special effect, adding another layer of intensity to the show.
We had been warned by our hotel concierge as to how cold it was, as he had seen it a few weeks ago. So we wore several layers and took a baby blanket from the hotel to wrap around us. We needed every bit of layering and warmth that we took.
We formed a small United Nations in our seating area. We are American; in front of us was a man from Sweden who said he thought he had left cold summers behind; on one side was a woman from Italy who helped us pull our blanket around us (but she said, in Italian, that she only spoke Italian); and on the other side was a man from France. We asked him how the singers’ French was. He frowned, and said that the lead singers were quite good/understandable, but the chorus didn’t fare as well. Their French was not good, he said. But there was an English translation on two digital screens, so it didn’t matter to us.
The performance was avant-garde, raucous, gritty, eye candy, refreshing. What dynamism! It had the feel of West Side Story, with the gangs in conflict and threatening each other. The cast was dressed in leggings, t-shirts, denim jackets, and blue jeans. After Intermission, Carmen was dressed in black leather pants and vest. Don Jose was wearing a long black trench coat and a t-shirt adorned with a woman’s face. At the very beginning, motorcycles raced in from three areas and rode around for a while, popping wheelies and performing stunts. They did the same after Intermission, but in the rainy puddles! Good thing they didn’t skid. The singing was sublime, and there are several pieces, both sung and orchestral, that everyone knows.
Carmen premiered in 1875, when Georges Bizet was only 36 years old. Up until then, opera was a high-brow art. But Carmen was composed in the opera-comique genre, and is about cigarette factory women, soldiers, a bullfighter, gypsies, smugglers – totally unlike any opera ever seen. It received terrible reviews, was called immoral and vulgar, and Bizet died just three months after its premiere, devastated by its failure. Today, of course, it is one of the most popular operas in the world because it depicts ordinary life, not the aristocracy.
Even with the cold, even in the rain, the performers never faltered. Arias were sung with wet hair and rain streaming down their faces. And they were unflinching. Bravo! It is an evening we will never forget in Sydney. We have always loved going to the theater, and we have especially loved the theater when productions try different and unusual things. This was as different as anything, and we would go again in a heartbeat. We keep wondering what it would have been like on a warm summer night with cool breezes from the harbor, enjoying food and drinks without dodging rain and without bundling up to our eyeballs. Maybe another year???
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