What a great way to kick off the first Opera North Season since lockdown. Carmen is one of those operas where everyone knows at least two of the arias even if only from adverts or film scores.

Before the curtain opened the audience was given a brief welcome back by Richard Mantle, Opera North’s General Director. He said that it had been 581 days since their last production but informed us that, although the performance was not socially distanced, Covid was still causing a certain amount of disruption. Rafael Rojas, the original tenor who was to sing the part of Don José, was suffering from the effects of long covid and felt that he could not do the part justice at the moment, so Erin Caves was flown in from the USA to take his place. After the rigmarole of the travel demands nowadays, he was not able to attend a rehearsal until Monday with this first performance being on Saturday. I dare say that they were five very long days for all concerned. Anyway, we are where we are, and fortunately where we are is at the Grand Theatre.

This is a new production of Bizet’s classic by Opera North. I have not seen the original version but I do know that this is some way removed from it.

Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen

The first performance of Carmen was in 1875 and the lead character worked in a cigarette factory, here she had undergone a major career change and was singing in a sleazy bar in an unnamed border town in an unnamed country. The dialogue is in French (with English titles), the characters all have Spanish names with one being a matador, at the end the cast are wearing Stetsons and, on close examination of one of the photographs provided by Opera North, Carmen has a selection of photographs on her dressing table mirror ranging from 20s film stars through Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe to Aretha Franklin. The servicemen’s uniforms look pretty generic and don’t seem to match any of the US militia so it got to the point when I was past caring.

The clientele of the bar was made up of members of the various branches of the armed forces and local workmen. As well as the town being anonymous, there was some vagueness about the time in which it was set. There were hints throughout but each seemed to contradict the last, entertainment in itself.

The opera began in the aforementioned bar where a fan dancer was strutting her stuff on the counter. For those of a tender age, a fan dancer was a woman who cavorted on stage with two large fans made of ostrich feathers, one at the front and the other at the rear, which were deftly swapped offering a chance for the audience to spy a fleeting glimpse of forbidden flesh. Money was thrown as a token of appreciation. A more innocent version of pole dancing I suppose. This form of terpsichore was popular up until the post war period when censorship was relaxed. Anyone in the audience hoping for similar titilation would have been disappointed as the dancer in question was wearing a body stocking. Not that I was paying much attention you understand, It was over before I had finished cleaning my glasses.

Phillip Rhodes as the matador Escamillo

As with most operas the plot consisted of love, both requited and spurned, violence, jealousy, and murder. This had the added elements of drug abuse, criminal activity and a contestant who must have finished well down the field in an Elvis Presley lookalike contest.

Alright, I am being flippant here, it is the music, acting and their presentation which matter and, despite the odd time when I was having trouble hearing the voices, especially when delivered from the extreme edge of the stage, every element was superb.

Erin Caves as Don Jose

Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen was wonderful, her character veering from controlling to vulnerable and strong to helpless in the blink of an eye. Her voice had power and range whilst still being expressive. Erin Caves, the last-minute Don José gave very little indication of being underrehearsed so goodness knows how he will be for the second performance which is not until next Saturday.

Camila Titinger as Micaela

Camila Titinger, who sang the role of Micaela has a voice as pure as you will ever hear and was a delight. At the other end of the spectrum Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo, the matador, harnessed his inner King of Rock’n’Roll to give an earthy performance as Carmen’s other love interest and Don José’s rival.

The first half of the performance opened with a fan dance with snow white feathers, the second began with a dance by Nando Messias who had played the bar owner, Lillas Pastia, in the first half. They were dressed in a totally black outfit comprising waistcoat, shorts and large furry chaps. I don’t know whether this was meant to be a portent of darker things to come but it really didn’t work for me, the legwear seeming to hamper any fluidity of movement.

Nando Messias who played Lillas Pastia, here as the dancer opening the second half.

The orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker in his first opera since becoming Music Director of Opera North, were their usual brilliant selves.

Conductor and Music Director of Opera North, Garry Walker. Photograph by Justin Slee

The lighting and special effects were excellent and at one point truly spectacular.

Should you be wondering whether to give opera a go, then I can highly recommend this as a starting point. The music is wonderful and the staging superb. As they say on the adverts ‘But don’t take my word for it!’. I was talking with the woman sitting next to me who said that Carmen had been on her bucket list for years but she had never had a chance to see it until tonight. Her verdict was that it had been well worth the wait. I rest my case.

For further details of the cast and creatives, and to book, please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/carmen-21-22/ where you can also hear snatches of the music.

Escamillo has left the building!

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs by Tristram Kenton.

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