Theatre Review: Opera North’s CARMEN – The Lowry, Salford

Brave, bold and perfectly cast, Opera North’s CARMEN brings George Bizet’s iconic opera into the present.

4 out of 5 stars

Opera North’s decision to run George Bizet’s CARMEN as their post-Covid breakout performance is a brave and a bold one – and is as camp as you like!

A far cry from the cliched Spain of Bizet’s original, Edward Dick opts to set his version in an indistinctly defined American border town. The stage is dominated by a seedy cabaret club designated for predominantly male customers, most of them soldiers and off duty officers raring for some action with the opposite sex. Here, Dick ensures the audience sees that this is a crude establishment where women are perceived through the male gaze.

The opening scene is of a nearly nude woman dancing seductively behind a glittering, semi-transparent bead curtain beneath an enormous Moulin Rouge-esque illuminated sign spelling out “GIRLS”. The club set is huge, with parts of the bar expressly designed to showcase the dancing girls. The Lowry’s expansive stage houses it perfectly, although it might struggle to tour smaller venues.

The cast adorns various looks from the 1960s, complete with bouffant wigs for the ladies (and some of the gents), a colourful and cliched wardrobe and exaggerated eye makeup and lashes, all part of the Director’s vision to bring the opera and some of its pre-dated idealisms into the present.

The idling, ogling soldiers’ harassment of any woman entering their territory is particularly pronounced. When Don José’s heavily pregnant fiancée Micaela turns up to give him a message, she is blocked and mocked at every turn, and it’s quite uncomfortable to watch her squirm her way to a hurried exit. This is not just going to be the story of a doomed man in the clutches of a traditional femme fatale.

Carmen’s character, played by the enigmatic mezzo Chrystal E. Williams, is given added complexity with the split between her assumed, protective stage presence, ‘La Carmencita’, and her other, genuinely loving self is stressed upon firmly.

Our first vision of Carmen is her descending from the heavens, the bar’s star attraction perched suggestively on a swing, adorned in a hot-pink bustier and matching French knickers, and fluttering towards the stage surrounded by ostrich feathers.

Williams brings the necessary spirit and energy and a considerable level of humanity and tenderness to the role. Her incredible range, authenticity to her accent and considerable acting skills are evident from the very start with her gentle rendering of L’amour est un oiseau rebelle.

Her Carmen is trapped in a situation that is not just timeless but distinctly, thoroughly modern, and sordid. The predictions for love and death in a scene at the gypsy camp, coming up, not from playing cards, but on a customer-built fruit machine.

A daughter is even created for Carmen to showcase her softer side, a loving mother trying to find a father for her ‘nino’. This is depicted in a scene with several other young children in a delightful backstage set in the club’s dressing rooms. The children are seen laughing and dancing and darning the Cigarette Girl’s stage outfits.

Phillip Rhodes is excellent as the hip grinding, macho Toreador Escamillo – either a rodeo rider or a country and western singer. There’s even a bit of Elvis during his solo performance of the Toreador Song.

Camila Titinger’s soft-toned Micaela has the power to belt it where it counts, and the clarity of her tone as she hits her high falsetto notes is truly horripilation inducing.

Garry Walker gets his music directorship off to a good start, whipping the orchestra through Bizet’s glorious tunes and getting real richness from the strings and activity from the wind section.

While the narrative is stretched a little thinly to incorporate the Director’s vision, it works on most levels, and the solid casting is the glue here.

The only real criticism is a disjointed section in which the curtain falls, the lights are out, there’s no background music, and nothing happens for a good three to four minutes, leaving the audience a little unsure of the proceedings.

That said, the Toreador March in the final act – delivered as a line dance for a company chorus – ends the piece on a high. As a downpour of balloons falls from the sky, led by Nando Messias’s gender-crossing Lillas Pastia with a triumphant smile, it feels so good to be back!

Opera North’s CARMEN runs at The Lowry, Salford, until 12 November.