Since Bizet first composed his legendary opera Carmen back in 1874 there have been countless performances, re-imaginings, movies, books and plays; this new production by Opera North is a very worthy addition to that list and one which will live long in the memory.
This current version, gives the traditionally Spanish drama a uniquely modern set of sensibilities centred not in Seville as the original, but on the French/Spanish border.Carmen ( Chrystal E. Williams) is a burlesque dancer in a somewhat seedy nightclub; entertaining the soldiers and toreadors alike while trying to bring up her daughter safe from the hate and corruption war brings.Drug use and smuggling takes place openly in the bar, alcohol flows freely and the characters are gregarious and brash.Carmen is the dancer, the leader of the showgirls, the main attraction, but we are left in no doubt that first and foremost to her, she is a mother, a single mother.This plays beautifully against pregnant Micaela (Alison Langer) who believes that she must have a husband and her unborn child a father, save that she will suffer the shame from her family and home village.Sadly for her, the man in question, soldier Don Jose (Satriya Krisna) has become besotted with Carmen and so begins the one of many manage a trois.
Don Jose is stationed in the garrison, enjoying the soldier life freedoms and male camaraderie. He does not want a ‘reminder from home’ and shuns the demands to do the right thing by Micaela. Ribbed by his soldier friends and tempted by the life of drink, drugs and loose women, he is constantly torn.
Playing out behind this love triangle is the fated superstar toreador Escamillo (Phillip Rhodes) – an 18th century Elvis Presley who, complete with his followers and cheer leaders, performs his bull fighting in a bid to woo Carmen.It is not clear if his intentions to Carmen are driven by love, lust or simply to add another conquest but what he manages to do is inflame Jose’s passions and the two rivals fight, spurred on by the baying crowd and overseen by Carmen.Jose cannot accept that Carmen does not love him, especially as he has now estranged himself from Micaela and when Carmen finally sides with Escamillo, Jose sees that there is no other way to rid himself of his jealous anguish but to kill her.
Under conductor Antony Hermus, Bizet’s operatic storytelling is given full throttle; high drama, passionate characters, dark comedy and a deep reflection on the human condition, the audience is gripped from the moment the opening overture begins. Sure, there are plenty of well known ‘songs’ in this opera, indeed many have found their way into popular culture, tv ads and even football chants, however it is only when observed as a whole performance can you truly appreciate the character portrayals and wonderfully absorbing storytelling.
This production is Opera North at its very finest – they make classic opera so accessible for the modern audience; exciting, enthralling, energetic and totally engaging. Traditional opera fans will love this version, new ones will wonder why they have not been to see their work sooner.