Review: Opera North’s Carmen, Leeds Grand Theatre, Saturday, October 2, 2021

OPERA North’s emotional return to its home theatre after an absence of twenty months released the warmest of responses from a capacity audience evidently in the mood for a celebration. The visionary £18.5M Music Works Project, Garry Walker’s long awaited debut as music director, the postponed production of Carmen. All have finally come to fruition.

So there is nothing new about a director putting his or her stamp on the world’s best known opera. Edward Dick’s production for Opera North goes further: the cigarette factory and Bull Ring in sun drenched Seville have been cancelled and there isn’t a toreador in sight. In this production, Phillip Rhodes’s powerful Escamillo is not a bullfighter, but a rodeo rider and country music singer.

The crimson velvet curtains open to reveal a seedy night club, probably in the United States mid-west. A giant neon sign proclaims the word “GIRLS”. The punters are mainly soldiers from a nearby garrison who pay up to ogle Carmen as the playboy bunny girl ‘La Carmencita’. Crystal E Williams’ Carmen descends to the stage in a flurry of ostrich feathers to sing her sultry Habanera. Traditionalists are unlikely to enthuse about a production of Carmen that so brazenly changes the identities and back stories of principal characters.

Dick does carefully control the simmering tensions and allows them to erupt at key moments. Carmen’s cocaine smuggling associates humiliate the sweet natured and heavily pregnant Micaela - a performance of infinite colour from soprano Camilla Titinger. Carmen’s tragic demise at the brutish hands of Erin Caves’ dangerously unhinged Don Jose makes uncomfortable viewing but compelling listening. Both Williams and Caves find their best form in this heart rending denouement.

Garry Walker’s pacing and balance of this and every dramatic confrontation is impeccable. Walker and the Orchestra of Opera North makes Bizet’s glorious musical score sounds as if the ink had barely dried. The pristine freshness of winds and strings in the lovely En’tracte to Act 3 exemplifies this composer’s genius for creating myriad colours with economy of means. The animated Opera North Chorus lights up the big ensembles so beautifully choreographed by Lea Anderson.

October 9, 19, 21, 23, 26 & 28 at Leeds Grand Theatre.