Friday 18 February 2022

Certainly not traditional, but true to the work's spirit and dramaturgy: Edward Dick's production of Bizet's Carmen returns to Opera North with Chrystal E Williams back in the title role

Bizet: Carmen - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bizet: Carmen - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Bizet Carmen; Chrystal E Williams, Sébastien Guèze, Alison Langer, Gyula Nagy, dir: Edward Dick, cond: Anthony Kraus; Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An imaginative new setting for a production lit up by the luminous performance of Chrystal E Williams in the title role

What would an authentic Carmen staging be, one true to the composer's intention - a French opera, set in Spain, based on a French novel, with a libretto written by two men who specialised in comic operas, and a score by a composer whose previous operas were set in India, Arabia and Bonnie Scotland.

The problem with Carmen is that it takes the Opéra Comique setting and peoples it with characters who speak to us today; Carmen and Don Jose's relationship burns through the form leaving the work's background a scorched mess in that searing final scene. It is not surprising that librettist Ludovic Halévy, who was at the premiere at the Opera Comique in 1875, should describe the first night audience's response getting progressively more tepid till the final act was received in near silence.

Edward Dick's new production of Bizet's Carmen (new last Autumn) has returned to Opera North for a second run. On Wednesday 16 February 2021 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, I saw Anthony Kraus conducting a cast that included Chrystal E Williams as Carmen, Sébastien Guèze as Don Jose, Gyula Nagy as Escamillo, and Alison Langer as Micaela. Sets were designed by Colin Richmond with costumes designed by Laura Hopkins, lighting by Rick Fisher and choreography by Lea Anderson.

Bizet: Carmen - Chrystal E Williams, Sébastien Guèze - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bizet: Carmen - Chrystal E Williams, Sébastien Guèze - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Dick has taken an imaginative leap and with designers Richmond and Hopkins, and has given Carmen a setting that enables the plot and dramaturgy to work in a vivid 20th century context, yet also solves another major issue, the problem that the opera and the title role can easily, fatally fall into two halves, the fun, sexy first two acts and the darker second two.

Here Carmen (Chrystal E Williams) was a dancer in a girly bar in a border town in the USA in the 1970s, a bar that is also a hotbed of smuggling and illegal drugs. La Carmencita, the sexy Carmen on display in the first two acts was a stage persona, which of course raised the question which Carmen was Don Jose attracted to? The first two acts took place in the bar, the cigarette chorus became a number for the girls, the children's changing of the guard chorus was cut, the opening of Act Two was back stage with 'Les tringles des sistres tintaient' as a number the girls sing, dreaming as they get ready, but Carmen did dance for Don Jose (Sébastien Guèze) even using castanets. Dancairo (Dean Robinson) and Remendado (Stuart Laing) were straight out of a 1970s cop show, funny but threatening, whilst Escamillo (Gyula Nagy) was a rodeo star, just as hyped and idiotic as the original version.

Thankfully, there was no comedy, just a strong sense of character, and fun. Laura Hopkins had clearly had fun with the 1970s costumes and the cast did too. There was a priceless moment at the beginning of Act Two during 'Les tringles des sistres tintaient' when the glitzy curtain raised and all the girls joined in dancing for pure joy in the empty bar.

Bizet: Carmen - Gyula Nagy - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bizet: Carmen - Gyula Nagy - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)

It worked partly because Chrystal E Williams was a glorious Carmen, she really glowed. Her singing was very stylish, with lovely French, and the sultriness was part and parcel of a more complex package. I have to go back a long way, perhaps to Teresa Berganza at the Edinburgh Festival in the 1980s, to find a Carmen who managed the same same sense of character and style. Williams made the serious moments part and parcel of the whole, such was when she responds to Don Jose's 'La fleur que tu m'avais jetée' with no you don't love me, or the Act Three card trio. Perhaps this latter scene lacked the brooding foreboding of some, but it was well done and led inevitably to the last act.

Sébastien Guèze was a sad sap of a Don Jose from the get-go, drawn to La Carmencita in Act One and fatally unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, especially as the reality behind the fantasy was a girl living in a world that was dangerously on the edge, Carmen's 'real world' of smugglers and drugs. Thus Don Jose never really stood a chance. Guèze has a rather high tensile voice, his upper register having a real high intensity. This meant that in the earlier acts her often lacked the ingratiating ability to ease the voice into phrases. This gave him a rough-hewn bluntness that worked towards the character. His contribution to the flower duet was robust, but in the second half of the opera he came into his own, and at the end matched Williams for intensity.

Alison Langer's Micaela was luminous, showcasing Langer's firm and flexible soprano. She made Micaela's sense of purpose dramatically musical without her ever seeming a prig. Act One was lovely, but in Act Three Langer showed her metal in the taxing aria here. Gyula Nagy swaggered nicely as Escamillo and managed the low passages in convincing manner. We never quite get Escamillo as a person, just his public persona yet the way this Escamillo appeared in the smugglers camp in Act Three really told.

The smaller roles were all well taken (with five being members of the chorus), each a strongly etched character. Matthew Stiff was delightful as the rough hewn, down-at-heel Zuniga, spending his days hanging round a girly bar. It wasn't a showy performance, but a strong ensemble one, a character who was part of the drama. His sidekick, Morales was the admirable James Davies. As I have said, Dean Robinson and Stuart Laing as the two smugglers were an over-the-top delight, whilst Amy Freston and Helen Evora as Carmen's fellow dancers Frasquita and Mercedes managed to create a sense of character as well as bringing fun and joy to their contribution to the card trio.

The chorus was on top form. This was an all singing, all dancing production with no extra dancers and there was even line dancing! The chorus entered in with will and conveyed real joy. The character of Lilas Pastia (Anders Duckworth) was expanded and Duckworth got feature moments at the openings of Acts Three and Four. And whilst Duckworth's performance was consummate, these scenes seemed more about Dick's uncertainty at having music happening with nothing on stage rather than any dramaturgical imperative.

The work was sung in Robert Didion's critical edition, in French. There was dialogue, in French, hurrah, though cut to the bone. And the dialogue was very creditably performed, a great credit to cast, director and language coach Nicole Tibbels.

Bizet: Carmen - Chrystal E Williams - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bizet: Carmen - Chrystal E Williams - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)

In the pit Anthony Kraus took no prisoners. The prelude was incisive and exciting. This was a performance that leveraged the production opera-comique-ness, its lack of grand opera pretention, and made it work musically too.

This was certainly not a traditional Carmen, but it was true to the work's spirit and dramaturgy. When the audience came out of the theatre (and several round me had not seen the opera before) they had seen a real Carmen, Bizet, Meilhac and Halévy's Carmen, Edward Dick's Carmen but above all Chrystal E. Williams' Carmen.

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