Composer: Georges Bizet
Text: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy
Conductor: Garry Walker
Director: Edward Dick
For some reason Carmen is among the operas most likely to get a revisionist production in opera houses around the world. Maybe the castanets and flamenco image is too clichéd for your average director; maybe the simple story has enough of the eternal verities to survive in any setting. Certainly going the whole hog paid off handsomely in Carmen Jones, but re-settings of the original opera are usually less successful.
Then there’s the fact that Carmen has not been a lucky opera for Opera North: Bizet’s opera has been responsible for a disproportionate number of the few disasters and duff productions of 42 highly successful years. When you added advance publicity that identified Carmen as a burlesque entertainer, not a worker in a tobacco factory, and the casting of a performance artist and specialist in “queer theory and performance” as the pragmatic inn-keeper Lillas Pastia, doubts set in.
Sadly they were justified. The first two acts are set in Lillas Pasta’s – in Bizet’s version only the second one is – with an extravagant display of show girls, the word GIRLS in lights on a scaffold and a huge bar that hampers entrances and is there to be leapt on by all and sundry. It is supposed to be a dirty frontier town in presumably Mexico from the number of cowboy hats and the presence of bull fights. Much of the sung text is unchanged, but the strangest things happen during the orchestral interludes and dances: for instance, the dressing room for the burlesque show is the scene for some twee interplay between Lillas and five small children until the showgirls enter and pass bills to Lillas, presumably the inn-keeper’s cut of their illicit earnings.
Edward Dick’s production is full of stock clichés indicative of depravity and decadence, but without any real sense of depravity or decadence. Smoking is constant in Act 1; cocaine is not only sniffed, but scattered willy nilly in the smugglers’ eagerness to get at it; drunk scenes are added; Michaela, seeking out Jose, is pregnant; Nando Messias as Lillas Pasta switches gender behind the painted smile. Yet, for all that, the atmosphere of the crowd scenes is often that of a high school hop. With so much unnecessary action, it’s a pity that the fights, a piece of necessary action, are handled so badly.
Let us find the good points – they are there. Under Garry Walker the orchestra has the necessary fire and delicacy. The Opera North chorus covers itself in glory, not only for maintaining vocal quality among all the silliness, but because chorus members deliver fine individual performances. Helen Evora (Mercedes) and Amy Freston (Frasquita) are excellent as the good-time girls, despite the stagey gestures they have to employ, vocally bright and assured, gradually developing a sense of humanity (hard to find in this production). Stuart Laing (Remendado) and Dean Robinson (Dancairo) are amiable ruffian smugglers who avoid any encouragement to go too far over the top. Christopher Nairne, as Corporal Morales coolly chatting up Michaela at the start, offers unfulfilled hope that this will be a valid alternative reading, as does non-Chorus member Matthew Stiff as the self-serving Lieutenant Zuniga.
Of the four principals only Phillip Rhodes’ Escamillo – rising above having to do the Toreador’s Song as Elvis – consistently satisfies with his smooth singing and a swagger that never goes too far, but the others all have merit. Despite a tendency to overdo the pianissimos Camila Titinger sings Michaela well, but a rather anonymous character is left to become totally so. Chrystal E. Williams has charm to burn as Carmen and a sweet, well-focussed mezzo-soprano voice, but finds it hard to shake off the show-girl image.
And then there’s Erin Caves as Don Jose, called into the cast at five days notice to replace Rafael Rojas who is suffering from long Covid. Understandably stolid at first, though a perfectly acceptable replacement, he finds the passion and the ringing upper register in Act 3, and he and Williams have the chemistry to make the Act 4 climax work despite the silly shenanigans behind them. There’s a long run of performances and, though it will never be a really grown-up production, before the end it could have a potent pairing as Carmen and Don Jose.
Carmen is an ideal choice to dominate the schedules for 2021-2022, its unfailing popularity just the thing to get audience numbers back to pre-Covid levels. Sadly this production will do nothing for the reputation of a company that continued stacking up the winners even during partial lockdown (Fidelio, A Little Night Music). However, the honest reviewer must record the wild enthusiasm of chunks of the first night audience which was doubtless due to the performance as well as excitement at the return of opera to the Grand.
Runs until October 28th 2021