Review: Carmen. Opera North. Nottingham Theatre Royal

Arguably the world’s most popular opera, Carmen is transformed by the vision of Director Edward Dick in this striking Opera North production, into something resembling a spaghetti western, in its intensity of time and place. An outpost town, a haphazard collection of soldiers, drug-dealers, crooked law-enforcement and the motley crew of Lillas Pastia’s bar, who provide entertainment and comfort.

The ‘frontier’ atmosphere is brilliantly evoked through the dazzling set of Colin Richmond, inventive costume design of Laura Hopkins and the complementary lighting design of Rick Fisher. But this is no dry desert, rather a primary-coloured, smoky and moody den, suffocating and gawdy.  Hopkins costumes are rooted firmly in the late 50s/early 60s, but there is an attention to detail that elevates them to hyper-real, and echoes the blaring neon ‘GIRLS’ sign in lights.

Far from being the strong and silent type, Carmen is explosive from our first glimpse of her, descending chanteuse-style, from the ceiling in a red satin gown, like some exotic bird. And so she continues throughout this production, front and centre stage, her persona re-imagined in this production, and the story told from her viewpoint.  As La Carmencita, a night-club singer, she is a temptress, controlling the customers and even engaging the local police on her side. Off-stage, she is Carmen, a strong and determined woman who seeks the security of love and being cared for  – but fears any attempt to tie her down or restrict her freedom.

Chrystal E Williams is superb in this role, drawing us into Carmen’s world, showing the raw underbelly of her hard life in her toughness, but with glimpses into her more vulnerable self. Williams’ rich mezzo-soprano voice glides through the music with ease, from flirtatious coquette to determined woman, every phrase given its due weight. Her performance is riveting, physically demanding and expressive.

Erin Caves is Don José, and manifests as an ‘ordinary’ man whose head is turned by the magnetic Carmen, and who proceeds to unravel. Abandoning his childhood sweetheart Micaela, Don José is lured into the dark underworld of crime, all in pursuit of Carmen. Caves is intense and the bubbling volcano of obsession is clearly delineated, leading to a shockingly dramatic denouement.

Micaëla (Camila Tatinger), gives a moving and riveting performance, her clear soprano voice combining with a focussed on-stage presence which elevates the role beyond the storyline. Further strong female roles are Mercedes (Helen Évora) and Frasquita (Natasha Argawal), as Carmen’s friends, who both sparkle in every scene. Argawal is cover for Frasquita at this performance and has a wonderful energy which draws one to watch her. These night-club dancers all have children, hidden backstage, and what at first seems shocking, actually grounds the women and gives them purpose.

Carmen’s other love interest, the bull-fighter Escamillo (Phillip Rhodes), has more than a flavour of Elvis about him from his fringed, velvet suit to his microphone slinging, a great character package. Adding to the ‘other-worldly’ atmosphere of the production  and pushing at the more conservative boundaries of opera, Nando Messias as Lillas Pastia is captivating, with choreography by Lea Anderson enabling them to express themselves with lithe grace.

Garry Walker makes his debut as Music Director for Opera North with this production and he seems to have found new ways to express character and emotion through the music. Bizet’s instantly recognisable ‘Habanera’ and ‘Toreador’ are old favourites, but other sections contrast legato phrasing with staccato, seeming to emphasise the unpredictable nature of this border town. Harry Sever makes his debut conducting for Opera North and the superb orchestra happily follow his seemingly effortless style.

The large Opera North chorus are always outstanding, their acting performance as pure as their vocals. There is something very real and familiar about them, in contrast to the sometimes cardboard cut-out musical theatre ensembles.  Any scenes featuring the chorus are lifted to a higher plane by their skill.

This production of Carmen by Opera North is a melting pot:  sung in French with English titles displayed on screen, an ostensibly Spanish story, but with the feel of a spaghetti western. It is lawless and on the edges of society, yet with much to say about the toxic masculinity and inequality at its core. Edward Dick has taken what could have been a problematic, out-dated storyline and shone a light on the female perspective, producing a much more human and empathetic Carmen for our time, and produces a dazzling, colourful spectacle shimmering with barely contained despair and longing.

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