Music: Georges Bizet
Director: Edward Dick
Choreographer: Lea Anderson
Conductor: Garry Walker
Sex and smoking, brutality and blood-sports. Bizet’s opera is packed full of all the things that get you a content warning on prime-time TV. So what to do with a 19th-century opera full of vice and crime? Opera North’s answer: add a strip club, a touch of gambling and a whole lot of cocaine-fuelled partying into the mix. Welcome back to the theatre!
The audience file in to the sounds of the orchestra tuning up. A night at the opera might not be the grand dressed-up extravaganza it used to be but, post-pandemic, there’s a genuine feeling of excitement about a big auditorium and stage full of people, and Opera North deliver a full-blooded, passionate production that ticks all the boxes for a great night out.
Some of the highlights of this opera are delivered by the chorus, and Opera North’s never fail to deliver. Right from the beginning when the male chorus of off-duty soldiers launch into the familiar Sur la place, chacon passe you know they’re not just there to provide a crowd. In Act Three when the whole chorus comes together on a dark stage under a menacing scaffold, they are a threatening mob. In the bullfighting scene in Act Four they are a joyful throng. They sound fantastic throughout.
Amy Freston as Frasquita and Helen Évora as Mercedes are a strong duo as Carmen’s closest friends and partners in crime. Erin Caves as Don José delivers beautiful, haunting arias full of love and longing. But it is Chrystal E. Williams at Carmen that, quite rightfully, wows in this production. From her first appearance, lowered to the stage from on high, tightly clad in a red silk dress, to her tragic death in the shadows, she is a glamourous, powerful Carmen. A woman that won’t be easily silenced.
The strip-club setting provides a great opportunity for some added cabaret. A seductive fan dance opens the show, a chap-wearing leather boy sets the scene for the bullfight. This is all down to performance artist Nando Messias as bar owner Lillas Pastia who barely leaves the stage throughout the production. Messias’s performance work outside of this production explores critique of gender, visibility and violence. To be honest you could watch them all evening. The contribution they make to this production is not only visually stunning in itself, but creates the whole ambiance – an underlying strangeness – beautiful and haunting.
There’s a dose of comedy thrown into the production that works on its own merits but feels slightly out of place. The entry of the bored-looking dancing girls with their nipple tassels is fun, but they quickly seem at odds when the scene turns more dramatic. Escamillo, the Toreador (Phillip Rhodes), arrives on a mechanical bull. With his Elvis sideburns and flares he delivers the Toreador Song on the dance podium with a microphone.
Colin Richmond’s set design is bold and hefty but it all glides on, off and around beautifully. Edward Dick’s direction uses every bit of it, most effectively the scaffold with its huge neon sign (‘GIRLS’). In the final scene Rick Fisher’s dramatic lighting creates a gorgeous effect when mixed with a whole lot of brightly-coloured balloons
There’s lots to like here. It feels like Opera North have thrown everything at this production which provides a hugely satisfying return after so long – but it’s perhaps too much to really hold together, with all of the extras slightly undermining Bizet’s fabulous music.
Runs until 12 November 2021