wed 20/11/2019

Carmen, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews

Carmen, Opera North

Carmen, Opera North

Trailer-park updating is as thrilling as it is chilling

Opera North’s 'Carmen': Peter Auty as Don José and Heather Shipp as CarmenTristram Kenton

“If you’re not careful, the opening act could become a costume parade: there are the townspeople, the children, the guards, the factory women – up to 350 people on stage in 20 minutes, before Carmen even enters, singing a catchy jingle from a recent TV advert.” So wrote director Daniel Kramer in last week’s Guardian. This may fill Carmen fans with nervous apprehension, but none should be felt, as this production is one of the most visually spectacular and exciting things I’ve seen.

Not all the directorial decisions work equally well, but we’ll get to one of those later. Bizet’s score has been trimmed slightly and we don’t get all the dialogue, but the cuts mean that the evening flies by in cinematic fashion. This is a French composer’s account of a Spanish story, so the fact that Kramer's setting is now Seville, Ohio, doesn’t jar in the slightest.

“Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere”, states the delicious 1960s pastiche cigarette advertisement hoarding shown before the curtain rises, and Soutra Gilmour’s detailed set presents us with a faux-American town square, the guards now policemen throwing basketballs. There’s still a sense of heat, sweat and violence, softened by the depiction of Bizet’s guards as overgrown Boy Scouts. Their grotesque harassment of Anne Sophie Duprels’s Micaela is still stomach-churning, but in general the male characters seem feeble and immature, contrasting with Heather Shipp’s vibrant Carmen.

Shipp is a wonderful actress, completely in thrall to Kramer’s conception of the piece. How can she be attracted to Peter Auty’s José – clumsy, chubby and wearing ridiculous shorts? It helps that his voice is so alluring.

The love scene together in Act Two sounds marvellous, even as we laugh when José decides to return to duty rather than consummate his love for Carmen. Here, Kramer’s conception of a town dance is an insanely choreographed party in a trailer park, pinyada dangling from a tree and drunken locals shuffling around. Kostas Smoriginas’s matador Escamillo is wonderfully seedy, swaggering around with a bull terrier on a chain – do watch what he does with a bottle of tomato ketchup.

All this may give the impression that Opera North’s production is a piece of vapid sensationalism. It isn’t. It’s supremely well cast and is impressively conducted by Andreas Delfs, never letting his orchestra overwhelm the vocals. It’s wonderfully designed and beautifully lit; witness Act Three’s dark forest, and how the colour scheme darkens as the opera progresses.

The townsfolk of Seville are literally roaring for blood, and it’s chilling to see them now dressed in black and red. This is superb, edgy stuff. How reassuring to see an opera company staging something bold and exciting instead of dusting off a safe revival. Keel Watson’s Zuniga is excellent, and the chorus are superb. But can someone explain to me what was going on with the elderly folk in Act One, whose significance still eludes me?

  • Carmen runs at the Grand Theatre Leeds until 11 May. It then goes on tour to Newcastle, Nottingham and Salford.
Smoriginas’s matador Escamillo is wonderfully seedy - and watch what he does with a bottle of tomato ketchup

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Comments

After the Guardian's 2 star review I was a little apprehensive about seeing this but after your glowing review I can't wait to see this fresh take on one of the most well known opera.

Like Jonathan I too was rather regretting splashing out on 2 tickets for this new ON production of Carmen. Both The Guardian and the Independent gave the thumbs down. I will need to make my own mind up!! John

"Trimmed slightly", Mr. Rickson? I think you ought to tell the readers that Kramer's cut the Quintet - the Quintet!!! What was good enough for Hammerstein ought to have survived, surely? Can anyone confirm this?

always good to make your own mind up and not always listen to reviews. yes big section's have been cut,yes quintet (looses nothing for cutting it) smugglers section and the top of act 4. as far as i can see exciting energetic production which actually may start to get young people interested in opera. make your own minds up.

This is a travesty of Carmen. Cheap and tacky. Most arias were murdered: orchestra flaccid. Any connection between this and Bizet is an accident. I am asking for a refund.

I dragged along my boyfriend to see "an opera" - its Carmen, its a classic.....you can imagine my slight dismay when the curtain when up....what the flip is this ??? After you accept it for what it is, I was pleasantly surprised. I can see why the purists don't like it but hey why not, its edgy and full of humour aswell as being intimately passionate and positively breathtaking. The bits that mattered, the real crux of the story was done with dignity....I think that Bizet would be delighted. My boyfriend would even consider going to see another Opera isn't that what its all about, introducing new people a new audience.....

Absolutely the worst production of an opera I have ever seen - a mockery. A terrible lapse of standards on the part of ON. It defies belief that supposedly intelligent and "professional" people allowed this farrago to go ahead.

Close your eyes for the first half and just listen said my daughter who had already seen the production. Pity she hadn't told all those who didn't come back in after the second interval - they would probably have enjoyed the second half. Third and fourth acts contrasted favourably with the opening two which were bizarre. Tomato ketchup, cans of fizzy drink, sunloungers, paddling pool - I should have guessed it was set in the States. How long did it take you to realise? Anyway, so much for my first opera. Would I go again? yes, but not to Opera North unless I am assured the interpretation will be serious.

james rehashes the old saw that this will "get young people interested.." Can we please put this nonsense away? What people saw was NOT Bizet's Carmen. Young people are intelligent enough surely to watch real opera and make up their mind about it, without our having to 'pulp it' for their consumption!

'Carry on Carmen over the cuckoo's nest' just seen it at manchester..... you really do have to suspend disbelief for this one!!! Singing was good though. Definitely good entertainment whoever thought of a dog fight instead of a bull fight missed the point somewhere.

Very very disappointed with this production, I love Carmen and it was my first live Opera. From the opening ten minutes I was bored and confused, what on earth were all the extra's doing, totally took my focus from the principles. The sound system seemed to be lacking and instead of a wonderful full sound I had to listen hard to hear individuals voices. I am open to new ideas and loved Matthew Bournes Swan Lake, but not this!!

If you have a pre-conceived notion as to what "Carmen" is - then you will probably have been disappointed. The original score and libretto is incredibly long and convoluted and there is no disguising the fact that the storyline is silly melodrama. It is redeemed by some sublime music and I can appreciate the fact that some people felt cheated by some of it being missed out. What we have got here is a subversion of the text which at times is plain silly. I couldn't help laughing at some of the more serious parts - especially with the subtitles (which were less than accurate - being able to understand the French) How could you take Don Jose seriously in the costumes he was given to wear, and his inability to act. "La Fleur que tu m'as jete" was superbly sung and I will forgive the whole production for such musical moments.

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