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Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Bizet and Meilhac & Halevy, after Merimee

Opera North

The Lowry, Salford

November 10 & 12, 2021; 2hrs 40min

Dean Robinson (Dancairo), Matthew Stiff (Zuniga), Chrystal E. Williams (Carmen), Amy Freston (Frasquita), Helen Évora (Mercedes) and Erin Caves (Don José) in Opera North’s Carmen credit Tristram Kenton
Dean Robinson (Dancairo), Matthew Stiff (Zuniga), Chrystal E. Williams (Carmen), Amy Freston (Frasquita), Helen Évora (Mercedes) and Erin Caves (Don José) in Opera North’s Carmen. All pics: Tristram Kenton

Opera North’s last Carmen, 10 years ago, set the action in Seville, Florida – about as far away from Seville, Spain, as you could imagine. This time it’s still on the other side of the Atlantic (it seems), and the location is “a small border town”, which accounts for the smuggling of act three and the presence of soldiers (or at least enforcement officers) from the start.

But there’s no cigarette factory and no bullfight. Lilas Pastia’s bar, grown to a place of adult entertainment, becomes the centre of the action in the first half of the story – in act one as seen from the customers’ side, where GIRLS (a metallic set displaying that word in neon lights dominates the stage) cavort, and in act two as seen backstage, where they take their enormous 1950s/early 60s wigs off and we see them as mums with children.

The final act looks as if we’re on the outside of a rodeo – not quite the same as outside a bullfight in Spain, and not really evoked by anything more scenic than a lot of balloons and the back of the metal set.

So what’s that about? I guess we’re seeing Carmen from the side of Carmen herself. In director Edward Dick’s concept, it’s all about her and the other women in her exploited, crushing world. Fair enough, but it’s about Don Jose, the soldier who becomes obsessed by her, as well. Apparently we should remember that the opera was written by a man, to a libretto by men, based on a novella by a man (Prosper Merimee), and that means the balance needs righting. But perhaps it means seeing its heart as the disintegration of a man, too.

I can only say that the best Carmen I’ve ever seen was one that took the psychology of Jose seriously, as well as that of Carmen, and though this sort of gets there in the end (in the last act duet the original material, words and music, just takes over and you can’t avoid it) I wish it had been more thoroughly explored before then.

Here we find that Micaela has been made pregnant by Jose before the stage story begins, so the guy gets a bad image from the start.

Musically it’s as good as you would expect from Opera North. New music director Garry Walker conducts (his first full production since appointment a year ago) and the orchestra plays beautifully.

Chrystal E Williams is Carmen. It’s her role debut, and she certainly has the voice for it, with power and mellow mezzo tone. Erin Caves as Jose isn’t quite up to that level, but to his credit he does develop the role as the piece proceeds and sang better, on Wednesday night, at the end than at the beginning. Camila Titinger as Micaela is quite a find – though I don’t think the director had much time for her psychology beyond being a wronged, innocent hometown girl – with a smooth and lovely soprano.

Escamillo (the toreador, to you and me) is reduced to a rodeo rider, which doesn’t carry quite the same oomph, though Phillip Rhodes does his best with him, as a kind of Elvis impersonator in the famous entrance song. His voice could do with turning up the throttle, though. And Opera North chorus members Amy Freston and Helen Évora act their socks off as Frasquita and Mercedes.

Repeated at The Lowry on Friday November 12 and at Nottingham Theatre Royal on November 17 and 19 (conducted in Nottingham by Harry Sever).


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