Carmen is one of the most popular operas of all time, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Opera North chose to stage it for its comeback production after nearly two years of darkness during the Covid pandemic. As this bold new envisioning from director Edward Dick returns to the Lowry for the second time we are again in uncertain times. The company, based in Leeds, employs staff and performers from all around the world. Here artists from Ukraine and Russian heritage work side-by-side and stand symbolically in solidarity against the war when the orchestra plays the Ukraine national anthem before the performance begins. The audience is on its feet too – it is a moving moment and there is a short pause before Bizet’s racing score transports us to another world, in a way only art can do, at least for the next 2 and ¾ hours.
Being a tragedy, we know it isn’t going to end well, but this production doesn’t overshadow us with that hindsight. Carmen’s life is tough, but she’s determined to make the most of what freedoms she has at every step, and her joie de vivre quickly draws us in.
Here the action has moved from Seville to an anonymous border town in America, where Carmen works as an exotic dancer in a seedy club whose neon sign screams GIRLS while doubling as a cover for drug dealing. The opera opens onto a strip scene behind a beaded curtain, where a dancer, covered only by flamenco fans of ostrich feathers, entertains a group of soldiers who promptly ignore her after the final reveal.
Next up is Carmen, as her alter-ego Carmencita, who is so hot she could be on fire. Everything about her entrance is flame red – from her long, satin dress to her lipstick. Doused in red light this femme fatale is passion personified; the soldiers (and the audience) are mesmerised – no wonder the other girls are jealous. A cat fight follows, Carmen is arrested but manages to use her charms to encourage Don José to free her. And, so begins the dramatic love story that will eventually bring them both to ruin.
Chrystal E. Williams, who sings Carmen, is American and delivers a perfect dose of US sass and brass along with a mega-watt smile. She sings like a nightingale and escapes scrapes like a cat with nine lives. Dressing room scenes with her young daughter (imagined for this production) provide an extra layer of humanity to the character and some reasoning beyond lust behind her later romance with famous toreador, Escamillo – here portrayed as a popular club singer/rodeo rider.
Gyula Nagy whips up the charm in a sparkling red and diamante suit, channelling the glitz of Vegas with a rhinestone cowboy. In comparison, José’s grey uniform seems dowdy and Sébastien Guèze brings a desperation and vulnerability to the awol soldier. Alison Langer too is outstanding as José’s deserted love, Micaëla. The passion of her delivery and power of her voice is almost overwhelming.
Dancer, Anders Duckworth creates a entertaining distraction as bar tender, Lillas Pastia. The non-binary performer moves between the high drama as if it isn’t there, leading the chorus in a revelrous line dance during the final act’s Les voici! Voivi la quadrille!
The audience is still half distracted by the party atmosphere following Escamillo when the opera reaches its tragic conclusion. In some ways the continued vibrancy takes away the impact of the final scene, but given the times we are living in, keeping the focus on life and the music is something to be welcomed.