Carmen (Opera North)
November 17 2021 (on tour till April 2022: see operanorth.co.uk)
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Glorious tunes and simmering emotions transplanted to a darker, more provocative world
Carmen is the opera where sex and violence happen to the backing of great tunes. Everyone knows the show’s big numbers and the audience arrives and leaves humming them. The story is a classic love-triangle. All the soldiers love Carmen – in particular the vulnerable, sincere Don José who becomes a deserter, putting his life on the line to follow his dream. For Carmen, however, love is volatile and about excitement. So when Escamillo, the bullfighter, comes along, Don José gets his feelings trampled on. Result: tragedy.
I say ‘bullfighter’ but that would suggest a Spanish setting. Opera North’s new production directed by Edward Dick and designed by Colin Richmond opens not outside a cigarette factory in Seville but at a down-at-heel nightclub somewhere in America. We see (in huge neon lights) the word GIRLS, the club serving up plenty for men to ogle at. When Escamillo arrives he still sings of being a Toreador but he’s clearly a sort of a whip-cracking rodeo performer, more at home on a bucking bronco than plunging his muleta into rampaging beefsteak. This version strips the opera of some of its more picturesque features, replacing them with a world that is altogether sleazier and grittier. The original’s smugglers have become drug-dealers and it’s soon made clear that Carmen and her fellow ‘girls’ get through their routines by snorting cocaine.
Her world may be sleazy but Carmen (Chrystal E. Williams) sure has vocal and physical charisma, from the moment she flies down onto the stage in her red outfit accompanied by fluttering ostrich feathers. In fact, there’s a lot of red in this show, suggesting the temperature of Carmen’s passion. It’s just a pity for Don José that his colour is blue. Erin Caves, who sings the role, gets all the sympathy votes: he’s not glamorous but, boy, does he try hard. Escamillo (Philip Rhodes, in frilly cowboy gear) has plenty of wicked charm and vocal panache. Camila Titinger’s performance as a pregnant Micaela is particularly moving.
The production excels in sharp story-telling, imaginative staging and plenty of well-choreographed set-pieces. Characterisation is perceptive, each member of the large ensemble fully believable. Harry Sever ensures that the orchestra extracts every ounce of colour from Bizet’s fizzing score.
Purists who prefer cigarette factories to nightclubs and bullfighters to drug-taking bronco riders may prefer to stay away. But for those who don’t mind all those glorious tunes and simmering emotions transplanted to a darker, more provocative world, then this new Opera North production offers not only a feast for the senses but also much to think about.
Chrystal E. Williams
CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA OF OPERA NORTH
Claire Llewellyn of Rc-Annie Ltd