Bizet’s Carmen is the perfect opera for beginners, because of how familiar the music is. Even those who are completely new to opera will instantly recognise this opera’s iconic songs ‘Habanera‘, ‘Les Toreadors‘ and the ‘Toreador Song‘. Conducted by Antony Hermus, hearing this famous music performed by a live orchestra really is something else. After two years of lockdowns, it’s difficult to watch Carmen without tapping your feet to the music.
Carmen is sung in French with English surtitles. This was also a BSL interpreted performance.
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’ or ‘woke’ casting, but Chrystal E. Williams excels in the opera’s title role. Beautifully seductive in the ‘Habanera‘ aria, it’s not surprising that Carmen literally has several men fighting over her. She effortlessly ensnares Don José, physically reeling him in, as if he is her prey.
Although Williams sadly didn’t majestically descend from the flies this time, from the moment her Carmen appears on stage, she completely dominates and commands the stage with her presence, despite her petite stature. Equally magnificent, Williams’ vocals soar in her arias, easily overpowering the full orchestra in the pit below. Her ‘Habanera‘ aria receives a well-deserved ‘Bravo!’ from a vocal member of the audience. Williams is sublime as Carmen and I would love to see Williams in another lead operatic role soon.
Sébastien Guèze deftly delivers an emotionally nuanced performance as the doomed lover, Don José. Guèze shares a beautifully tender duet with Alison Langer‘s Micaela at the beginning of 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.
Guèze also brilliantly renders the 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. 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 startlingly 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.
Gyula Nagy‘s eccentric performance as Escamillo is immensely entertaining, with his famous ‘Toreador Song‘ being turned into something akin to an Elvis tribute act, complete with his signature hip gyrations. Swinging his microphone in the air, Roger Daltry style, Nagy injects some much needed fun into this tragic opera. It is understandable how Carmen falls for Escamillo, when he is the complete opposite to the desperate leech, Don José.
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. Perhaps 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, Gyula Nagy‘s toreador creates Las Vegas-esque imagery by wearing a costume that lights up.
My main 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 compelling 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 the action.
Overall, and most importantly, 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 Swedish non-binary performer, Anders Duckworth, graces us with a beautifully expressive dance solo, before bringing the party atmosphere with some exhilarating line dancing in the role of Lillas Pastia.
Long may this inclusivity continue!