Opera North: Carmen – Lowry Theatre

The thing that instantly strikes me about Carmen is how familiar the music is, even though I have never watched this opera before. Even those who are completely new to opera will recognise Bizet’s iconic songs Habanera‘, ‘Les Toreadors and the ‘Toreador Song‘. Under the baton of Garry Walker, hearing this famous music performed by a live orchestra really is something else. As such, I would wholeheartedly recommend Carmen as the perfect choice for an introduction to opera. It is sung in French with English surtitles.

Opera North Carmen Lowry Theatre Manchester Theatre Review - Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen in Opera North's production.
Chrystal E. Williams is Bizet’s “dangerous and beautiful” Carmen. Picture credit – Tristram Kenton.

Set in Spain, Bizet’s Carmen essentially tells the story of a love triangle between a beautiful fiery gypsy called Carmen, a lovestruck soldier, Don José, and the extravagant matador, Escamillo. As is often the case in opera, it swiftly turns into tragedy.

Seeing a woman of colour playing a lead role like Carmen is an absolute breath of fresh air. Some critics may see this casting as ‘virtue signalling’, but Chrystal E. Williams excels in the opera’s title role. Beautifully seductive in the Habaneraaria, it’s not surprising that Carmen literally has several men fighting over her. She effortlessly ensnares Don José and reels him in, as if he is her prey. From the moment Williams enters, majestically descending from the flies, she completely commands the stage with her presence. Equally magnificent, Williams’ vocals soar in her arias, easily overpowering the full orchestra in the pit below. She is sublime as Carmen and I would love to see Williams in another lead operatic role soon.

Erin Caves deftly delivers an emotionally nuanced performance as the doomed lover,  Don José. Caves shares a beautifully tender duet with Camila Titinger‘s Micaela in Act One, delicately caressing the bump of their unborn child. He then captures the essence of a love-struck teenager when Don José naively falls in love with Carmen, before flying into a fit of jealous rage when her affections turn towards Escamillo instead.

Caves brilliantly renders the multifaceted, flawed nature of his character, leaving the audience with little sympathy for him at the end. It is excruciating watching Don José continue to pursue Carmen against her wishes. I sat in dismay, holding my head in my hands, thinking “Mate – Get over it! Move on! She doesn’t love you any more!”. It is even more galling that Don José faces no retribution for his actions.

The ending of Carmen certainly takes on a new profundity since the #MeToo movement, as women have started to share their experiences of male violence. Bizet’s Carmen still remains relevant nearly 150 years after it was first performed, particularly with the horrific stories of male violence against women that have been filling news headlines in recent months. Sadly, Carmen’s story isn’t an unfamiliar one to most women.

Opera North Carmen Lowry Theatre Manchester Theatre Review - Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen in Opera North's production.
Phillip Rhodes’ Escamillo seduces Carmen with tales of bull fighting. Picture Credit – Tristram Kenton

As usual with Opera North productions, Carmen is a visual treat, especially in the first half, which is set in a burlesque club. Huge neon letters spelling ‘GIRLS’ dominate the stage, and red beaded screens are raised or dropped to effectively segment sections of the performance space. This is particularly evident in a scene where Carmen and the other burlesque dancers are changing backstage, yet you can still see the punters drinking in the bar in the background. The movement choreography also deserves some credit here, because there is  always something happening on stage, yet it never distracts from the main action; again, thanks to the beaded gauze screens.

After the interval, the huge lettering of ‘GIRLS’ is rotated so that the bare scaffolding behind it becomes the dominant scenery for the remainder of the play. Serving as a reflection of Carmen’s nomadic gypsy lifestyle, this adds some nice variation of height for the performers to exploit, sometimes to comic effect. Most notably, Phillip Rhodestoreador creates Vegas-esque imagery by wearing a costume that lights up.

My only gripe with this opera is that the fight scenes look almost too choreographed that they don’t feel natural and instead feel static and contrived. This is particularly noticeable in what should be a dramatic showdown between Don José and his rival Escamillo. Supposedly a fight to the death, the fighting in this scene is so slow, it’s almost like watching two drunken men brawling. As opposed to a knife fight, Don José simply runs at Escamillo holding a knife, which his rival easily dodges. There’s no tension or excitement in this scene, nor any threat that either character is going to die as a result. Adding to this frustration is the fact that the scaffolding that they’re fighting on is rotated throughout the fight too, causing the audience to miss a lot of it.

Opera North Carmen Lowry Theatre Manchester Theatre Review - Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen in Opera North's production.
‘Les Toreadors’. Picture Credit – Tristram Kenton.

Overall, this is a superb introduction to Carmen and another top quality production from Opera North. It’s so nice to have them back at the Lowry after the last year and a half.

Most importantly though, it is incredibly refreshing to see some proper diversity on stage, with a black woman playing the lead role in an opera, who delivers a stellar performance. Not to mention the fact that Nando Messias, who graces us with a beautifully expressive dance solo and some cracking line dancing, is the first non-binary performer I have seen on stage outside fringe theatre.

Bravo Opera North! Long may this inclusivity continue!

 

Carmen will be back at the Lowry in February 2022. You can find full details on Opera North’s website. If you have never seen an opera before, you can even get tickets in the stalls for £20 through their Try It ON scheme. 

One thought on “Opera North: Carmen – Lowry Theatre

Add yours

  1. hey nicola I love your review. What about those Symphonic dancers! I was mesmerised. Amazing. Streetwise opera are doing a session on theatre criticism and Lynn Gardner is doing it, so it’ll be great to see her. i really liked her and found her stories of theatre fascinating Hope to see you next time. How wonderful is it to be back at the theatre! anita

    On Sun, Nov 14, 2021 at 3:15 AM THE PLAY’S THE THING wrote:

    > Nicola Brierley posted: “The thing that instantly strikes me about Carmen > is how familiar the music is, even though I have never watched this opera > before. Even those who are completely new to opera will recognise Bizet’s > iconic songs ‘Habanera’, ‘Les Toreadors’ and the ‘Toreador” >

    Liked by 1 person

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