Carmen

Music by Georges Bizet; libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Opera North
Leeds Grand Theatre

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Chrystal E Williams (Carmen) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Phillip Rhodes (Escamillo) and Chrystal E Williams (Carmen) Credit: Tristram Kenton

Originally scheduled for January 2021, but postponed due to COVID, Carmen is the first Opera North production to be staged at the Leeds Grand in 581 days. Directed by Edward Dick, whose excellent Tosca ignited the theatre back in 2018, this production honours Bizet’s unforgettable score whilst also offering fresh insights into the character of Carmen—possibly the most iconic figure in all of opera.

In a small frontier town, where criminals smuggle contraband over the border, there is a seedy nightclub owned by Lillas Pastia (Nando Messias). Here, a group of soldiers while away the hours by watching burlesque dancers perform, but the main attraction is, of course, Carmen (Chrystal E Williams), who captivates the audience with her raw sensuality.

Enter Don José (Erin Caves), a straitlaced soldier, who is charmed by Carmen into letting her escape after she is placed in custody for starting a bar brawl. Over the course of the opera, José sinks deeper into criminality, first by killing a superior officer out of romantic jealousy and later by becoming a smuggler.

In some productions of Carmen, the audience is encouraged to sympathise with José; to regard him as a noble man led astray by a wicked and faithless woman. When Carmen throws him over for Escamillo (Phillip Rhodes), the dashing toreador (or, in this case, rodeo rider), our low opinion of her is confirmed.

Dick’s production, however, offers us a far more sympathetic view of Carmen: she is no mere Jezebel, but rather a charismatic woman who refuses to be pinned down by a neurotic and controlling man. Carmen’s showgirl persona, referred to as ‘La Carmencita’, is the armour she uses whilst performing at the nightclub, but in real life she hungers for genuine intimacy and connection.

Due to its ubiquity in popular culture—I remember, for example, the “Habanera” being parodied in various cartoons as a child—I already felt familiar with Bizet’s opera. My expectations were high, and for the most part they were amply satisfied by Dick’s bold and colourful staging.

This production marks an auspicious debut for Garry Walker as the Opera North’s new musical director. Under his direction, the orchestra play with considerable verve and richness, capturing the stirring power of Bizet’s score.

Also making her Opera North debut is Chrystal E Williams, who convinces as both a glamorous showgirl and a free-spirited single mother. She sings beautifully throughout, particularly during her rendition of the immortal “Habanera”.

Erin Caves lends his strong tenor voice to the role of José, and his performance is even more impressive given that he was brought in as a last-minute replacement. There are also striking turns from Camila Titinger, who brings real pathos to the part of Micaela—the woman abandoned by José in favour of Carmen—and Phillip Rhodes, who is suitably macho as the swaggering Escamillo.

Colin Richmond’s arresting set design, which transplants Carmen from 19th-century Spain to modern-day America, is full of eye-catching details. The nightclub in which Carmen works, with its beaded curtains and glitterball, creates a suitably sleazy arena for Carmen to bewitch her captive audience of soldiers.

Whilst some elements of the production didn’t work entirely for me, such as the decision to make Carmen a single mother, I ultimately found myself bewitched by this new staging of Bizet’s masterpiece.

Opera North, it’s wonderful to have you back.

Reviewer: James Ballands