sun 14/07/2024

Carmen, Opera North review - humanity and no bull | reviews, news & interviews

Carmen, Opera North review - humanity and no bull

Carmen, Opera North review - humanity and no bull

Lavish comeback to the live stage with a director’s show

Conviction and enthusiasm: Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen in Opera North’s productionTristram Kenton

Is Bizet’s Carmen all about Carmen? Or Don José and his obsession with her? Or the society that made her what she is? Or all of the above? Inevitably it’s an opera that almost never escapes some Regietheater treatment these days. Director Edward Dick’s take on it is definitely one of those, and tries to tackle as many of the issues as it can.

Change of time, change of place. It’s set in “a small border town”, presumably somewhere in the Americas, and the costuming tells us we’re in the late 1950s or early Sixties. There’s no cigarette factory, though lots of smoking, so at least the references to cigs still make sense. There’s no bullfight, but Escamillo is a celebrity rodeo rider and that’s the core of the big off-stage event in the last act.

All of acts one and two take place in Pastia’s bar – a place with its own performing “girls”, who are thus seen as they appear both in front of the baying and lustful male customers – mainly soldiery – and backstage, where we realise they’re really just women doing a job and they have families. The smuggling (drugs, of course) is straightforward enough in these circumstances.

This is Opera North: very keen to make a welcome comeback to the normal stage and with the resources to do it on a pretty lavish scale. The opera also happens to be Garry Walker’s first production as the company’s music director. He needn’t have had any worries about his role as conductor in the pit, as the music is lovingly and glowingly handled and the orchestra plays for him superbly.

As with many Opera North productions in recent years, the casting is partly from the company’s chorus, which as so often before provides excellent character acting from its own ranks, partly from regular guest artists, plus some key roles from young actor-singers making their debuts with the company. In this case the female roles seem to be somewhat better filled than the male, though no one could be described as a weak link – there’s too much care in preparation for that ever to be true of this company.

Erin Caves as Don José and Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen in Opera North’s production of Bizet’s Carmen credit Tristram Kenton Carmen makes her first appearance in the bar/club from on high via a harnessed suspended chair (and with a kind of phoney Spanish head-dress that doesn’t last long but is I think meant to suggest that her alternative name of La Carmenćita is a performing persona – i.e. not the real, human Carmen who emerges after the first act). Chrystal E. Williams (pictured with Erin Caves as Don José) enters into this interpretation, her role debut, of the character with conviction and enthusiasm, and her vocal power and tonal quality are never in doubt. While Camila Titinger’s Micaëla doesn’t have the same opportunities for developing a portrayal (she’s pregnant with Don José’s child in this production, which is presumably designed to set him in a bad light from the outset but fights against the wording of the dialogue somewhat), her singing is pure and sweet and earned her spontaneous applause for her act three aria.

Amy Freston as Frasquita and Helen Évora as Mercedes give individuality to their parts in the story and pull their weight in the ensembles with credit.

Erin Caves as Don José seemed to make an unsure beginning – perhaps deliberately – but by the final act was firing on all cylinders in projection as well as characterisation. To a great extent the piece itself just takes over here, as the fated relationship builds to its tragic climax. And Phillip Rhodes has all the stage presence needed for a macho Escamillo but came over just a little under-powered – even though I rather liked his Elvis-style delivery of the Toreador’s Song.

In the end, Carmen without corrida seems somewhat bloodless,  metaphorically as well as in the obvious way (you lose the parallel of the sacrifice of a life in the arena off-stage as another is ended before you), and though I can see it needs some kind of fresh thinking to present it for our own times, I can’t help thinking that it’s Don José’s disintegration that should engage us as much as Carmen’s search for “freedom”.

  • Repeated at The Lowry on Friday 12 November and at Nottingham Theatre Royal on 17 and 19 November  (conducted in Nottingham by Harry Sever)
The music is lovingly and glowingly handled and the orchestra plays for him superbly


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article


Disappointing production - much of the revised interpretation of key characters war against text and common sense. Came away quite angry but Chrystal E Williams was magnificent.

What a pathetic travesty of trying to be ‘sexy’ and ‘edgy’ that completely distracted from rather than enhanced a live opera experience. The costume department should be shot and the staging basically didn’t work for me at all. Those attempting to be sexy seriously needed acting lessons - just not good enough. The Coke sniffing was ludicrous. I took along a very musical nonetheless opera newbie and was so disappointed this was his first experience. There was little stand-out singing apart from Michaela. Frasquita and Évora were lovely all round. There wasn’t much sultry about Carmen. I wished I’d stayed at home with a glass of wine, closed my eyes and put on my favourite CD of Carmen at home.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters