OPERA North was riding high coming into this new Edward Dick production.
Buoyant through lockdown with multiple streamed events via its own digital platform ON Demand, its backstage efforts were centred on a huge Music Works development.
The outcome of this is the new Howard Opera Centre, named after its principal benefactor Dr Keith Howard, who contributed some 60 per cent of the £18.5 million cost. It will house management and rehearsal studios for the company itself, while providing educational spaces for youngsters to explore their potential.
Within months, a new bar and restaurant with public access will open next to the Howard Assembly Room (now freed exclusively for smaller-scale events), the result of imaginative enclosure of a former Victorian street.
Sadly, all this excitement did not generate a Carmen to do it justice. It is a besetting sin of Carmen producers that they feel the need to re-interpret Bizet, not to say Mérimée, in tune with modern attitudes.
This runs a serious risk of dumbing down, even presumption: this show’s Carmen, Chrystal E. Williams, was quoted in the programme as declaring that “it would be easy just to do a conventional Carmen”, as if convention were a dirty word – or easy.
It is hard to portray an incorrigible man-eater as a saint, albeit one who is the figment of solely male imaginations. Indeed, after Opera North’s last attempt at the work, Daniel Kramer’s brutalist affair ten years ago, no-one would have been surprised if the company had played this one straight down the middle.
Instead, what we have is a good night out, but with little relevance to the original. Time and place are not identified in Colin Richmond’s sets, but we can tell that this is a border town. Since the smugglers are dealing in drugs, we have every reason to assume that we are on the United States-Mexico border.
The action opens in a bordello masquerading as a night-club, whose clientele is mainly in uniform, doubtless drawn by the illuminated ‘GIRLS’ on scaffolding dominating the scenario. Not exactly an advertisement for women’s lib, especially given female staff sashaying around in flimsy underwear, to the designs of Laura Hopkins.
If these girls are smoking anything, it is coke, not cigarettes. Still, it has to be said, the ladies of the chorus bravely put their best foot forward; if they feel uncomfortable, it certainly does not show.
Immediately noticeable is the sparkling form of the orchestra, with Garry Walker at the helm for the first time as music director, a year later than planned. Theirs is much the most positive contribution to the evening.
Walker keeps rhythms consistently crisp but is equally alive to atmosphere: nerve-jangling chromatics in the card scene, for example, and velvet horns in Micaela’s song a little later. His tenure is off to a cracking start.
Neither of the principal pair is vocally quick out of the blocks and he has to gentle them into the fray. Williams is lowered on a swing onto the night-club stage, to be embroiled at once in a fan-dance: it is an eye-catching entrance, in keeping with her charm.
When the stage swivels and we see the ‘real’ Carmen – at her make-up table, wig removed, cuddling what we assume is her daughter – her mezzo, although still light, begins to bite. But it is not until Act 3 that we hear what might have been: genuine passion.
The same applies to Don José. Erin Caves only joined the cast five days ahead of curtain-up, Covid having effectively removed two previous candidates. His safely surly opening is understandable, but does little to convince of his interest in Carmen or offer any reason for her pursuit of him.
If there is any electricity at their first encounter, it is low-voltage, like Caves’ tenor. It is only when his bile is up, much later, that he finds real resonance. His eventual throttling of Carmen prolongs her agony unjustifiably.
Phillip Rhodes’ Escamillo arrives on an electrically-powered bucking bronco, a cowboy not a toreador; there is no hint of the bull-ring. The swagger of his ‘Toreador’ song certainly raises the vocal temperature but thereafter gradually dissipates, lessening the likelihood that he would offer José any real threat. So when José chases him across the scaffolding that now stands in for a mountain fortress, we are entitled to wonder what all the fuss is about.
Camila Titinger gives an engaging Micaela, whose aria is a touch short on warmth; she is mistakenly encouraged to make much of her pregnancy. Amy Freston’s Frasquita and Helen Évora’s Mercedes are tirelessly flighty, raising everyone’s spirits, while the spivvy smugglers of Dean Robinson and Stuart Laing bring an element of light relief. Matthew Stiff is a firm if stolid Zuniga.
With the Lillas Pastia of Nando Messias making several androgynous incursions during the second half, there is no end to the mixed messages of this ill-focused production. Thank heaven we have five children who know exactly what they have to do, working with a chorus that does its level best to sound persuasive. But the saving grace is the orchestra – focused on unvarnished Bizet.
Further performances on October 26 and 28, then on tour until November 19, returning to Leeds in February 2022.