Hard on the heels of ‘Waitress’ at the Opera House this week, another musical tale of female lust and empowerment comes to Manchester, with the arrival of Georges Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ from Opera North playing at The Lowry. Unfortunately, whilst this production promises ‘desire and hot-blooded passion’, what we are served is a reheated dish that attempts to be innovative and succeeds only in being lacklustre and imitative.
Carmen was hugely controversial upon its initial staging in 1875 with its story of immorality amongst the proletarian class of Andalucia; the eponymous heroine being both lawless, amoral and (spoiler alert) suffering a brutal on stage death at the denouement. Bizet died less than three months after the premiere of his final work, never getting to see it staged to international acclaim, becoming one of the most performed and enduring pieces of the operatic canon.
In this production, Director Edward Dick (ex Cheek by Jowl) displays his experimental theatrical roots in his decision making, undermining the operatic in favour of a camp musical theatre display. It is a sea of confusion with a lack of clarity in both story and idea which falls flat in its execution. So, we have the transposition from the cigarette factory in southern Spain of the original story, to a nightclub in (possibly) a border town in Mexico. The girls are hustlers and prostitutes, stronger characters than in Bizet original but less sympathetic as a result. An attempt to show their humanity by incorporating their children into the story gives reason to their activity, but clashes strongly with their societal mores. The muddle is symptomatic of a ‘committee, attitude to the direction, which piles one idea on top of another without a thought for the coherence and clarity of the final result. Each decision creates another problem which is solved by a further change resulting in a muddled mess.
Even the subtitling added to the impression of confusion, often absent when action was taking place, when present they were simplistic in the extreme, conveying nothing but the barest information. My partner, a fluent French speaker, enjoyed the production far more, as she was able to appreciate the beauty and lyricism of the score in its original form, rather than the bastardised version of the story that I endured.
Then we have Carmen (Chrystal E. Williams), she descends on a trapeze lowered from the fly tower above the stage, clad in feathers and bathed in a luminescent red lighting. It was beautifully executed but then spent the rest of the performance very static, without any of the sinuous fluidity promised by her dramatic entrance. Similarly, Escamillo, the Toreador (Phillip Rhodes) is clad in a buckskin fringed jumpsuit (think Vegas era Elvis) that actually lights up in the third act. The effect is then ruined with cumbersome movement and use of a prop whip and microphone that would be laughed off stage in any amateur MT production. Whilst the costuming by Laura Hopkins was sumptuous, the choreography from Lea Anderson was unwieldy, with the fight scenes looking awkward and the finale line dance (why) shockingly executed. If Dick is going to employ these tropes in an operatic mileu, unfortunately he will be judged by their standards and be found sadly wanting.
As one might expect, any strengths in this production lie in the orchestration and vocal performances of the cast. Conductor Anthony Hermus led the orchestra with clarity, the delicate strings complimenting the woodwind bassoons and clarinets to great effect. The most moving part of the evening was the third act aria from Micaela (Camila Titinger) ‘Je Dis Que Ne Rien Me Epouvante’, a heartfelt ballad from the cuckolded wife of Don Jose (Erin Caves), which was delivered in a pure soprano voice which brought a lump to the throat.
The corporate team from Opera North needed a piece with ‘name recognition’ with which to launch themselves back into the post pandemic theatrical landscape. Having spent £18 million on capital development of its magnificent new headquarters in central Leeds, it is crucial that future productions will guarantee solid audience bookings in an uncertain world, so the new and experimental work will give way to tried and trusted brands. However, the dilemma is they have a remit to attract new audiences to opera. So, with this Carmen they have fallen between two stools, by trying to reach out to a wider audience they have failed and only succeeded in alienating their core demographic.
Verdict: A muddled mess, partially rescued by the orchestration and vocal performances of the cast.
Carmen returns for a final performance on the 12th November https://thelowry.com/whats-on/opera-north-carmen/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 10th November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★