Bizet’s Carmen is an undeniably fantastic opera. There is no arguing with that and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. Works in the operatic canon, revived continuously since they were first performed, are revived because they are great and there’s as close to a consensus on this as is possible. Yes, what we like is subjective but if you think it’s bad, you’re mistaken. Carmen is one of these big hitters. When choosing to stage a classic like this a director doesn’t get any brownie points for introducing some long-lost gem, so the job is extra hard. How can anything that happens on stage match the drama, the bravado and the heartbreak in the pit?
Edward Dick’s new production gives us Carmen as a three-dimensional woman. At the end of the opera, she is discarded, used up and snuffed out by the jealous Don José (Satriya Krisna) for daring to fall in love with another man. By shining a spotlight on the different sides of Carmen’s sexuality in Dick’s cabaret bar staging, she is portrayed not just as the concept of lust and greed made flesh; she is a performer at work among braying men, a friend backstage, a mother and a woman in charge of her own desire. Chrystal E. Williams plays the lead with such gorgeous warmth and with such an amazing voice that the whole of the auditorium falls in love with her too. She is present in the role throughout and is entirely engaging in a character that she truly makes her own.
Now then, you’d think a world-famous opera about the interplay between female self-actualisation, the dangers of male jealousy and the ownership of women would spark intelligent conversation in bar at the interval. Simone de Beauvoir, Audre Lorde, Mary Wollstonecraft perhaps? But no, everyone wants to know what’s going on with the nipple tassels.
There are a few odd moments that puncture the production and take us out of the story. Costume designer Laura Hopkins gives us a treat with many outfit changes throughout and we can certainly see the cost of our ticket (and more, thanks to generous funding) on the stage, but what on earth is going on with these tassels? It might be unreasonable to expect a whole chorus to want to bare flesh so the designer’s workaround is skin coloured t-shirts with tassels stuck on somewhere near where a nipple might be (and in other cases, a bit far off…). This is literally the only thing wrong with the production and it’s hard to believe that the same person that designed these cross-eyed boobies also came up with Escamillo’s (Phillip Rhodes) gorgeous red cowboy suit. Our toreador literally lights up the room with a jacket studded with tiny lights. It and its accompanying ten-gallon hat and boots looks like they’re on loan from Graceland (I wonder if she’s taking commissions?).
Colin Richmond’s set is big, bright, fantastically flirty and terribly dirty with just a few push and pulls of a bar-cum-table and the 20 foot high, abrasive, neon GIRLS sign. It is expertly lit too by lighting designer Rick Fisher.
From the opening bars of Bizet’s classic, the lively baton of Opera North’s new music director Garry Walker commands an excellent performance full of the love, adoration, bravado and jealousy from Dick’s new staging. This production deserves to travel the world and live long past 2022.
Written by: Georges Bizet
Conducted by: Garry Walker
Directed by: Edward Dick
Produced by: Opera North
Opera North’s Carmen tours until April 2022. Further information and tour dates can be found via the below link.