Opera North and Bizet’s Carmen at Leeds Grand Theatre

The lights dimmed, the auditorium darkened and the orchestra, in full-on life-affirming tutti, burst upon us with the familiar strains of Les Toréadors, its opening, as ever, pulsating with resplendent cymbals, bass drum and triangle, then repeated for good measure, the little detached trumpet figuration a few bars on, observantly quiet, yet nicely in its proper place. We allowed ourselves to sink a little deeper into our seats …..

….. live opera is back at Leeds Grand Theatre. It has been a long time,- 581 days, according to the Company’s General Director, Richard Mantle, when addressing the audience front of curtain. The news was that this season’s long-advertised Don José was not to be Rafael Rojas, himself plucked in transit to Mexico some weeks before to replace an indisposed Antoine Bélanger. Señor Rojas was now sadly confined at home, cruelly silenced for the time being by the Long Covid. His replacement, American tenor Erin Caves, had only arrived for rehearsals with Opera North five days previously.

“However, he’s in your programme,” Mr. Mantle assured us.

Nothing, but nothing, was going to stop this production from going ahead.

Thankfully, for Caves, he was joining what proved to be a particularly strong cast, with a depth of excellence I have not known for some time, even for Opera North. Though his movement around an apparently still unfamiliar set seemed somewhat awkward initially and though he struggled vocally in search of his top range in solos and intonation in duets, he fared better, both in swagger and pitch, in the succeeding Acts. For a grand opera with passion so ostentatiously set into almost every bar, there is no love scene to speak of, but a fiery Act 4 bust-up between the principals, which went very well. Gallant and heroic, Caves now has the luxury of a whole week to prepare for his next appearance.

I am of the opinion that American soprano, Chrystal E. Williams, another ON debutante, could settle on a successful international career based solely on her portrayal of Carmen. Her Act 1 Habañera, with its irreconcilable contradictions, radiates a mesmerising, yet mystifying allure, the Seguedilla an irresistible flirtatiousness. The less familiar scenes – the defiance when put under arrest, the heavy portents of death in the game of chance, the seductive dance with castanets – normally requiring a good deal more work for a singer to bring off, Miss Williams takes in her stride. Vocally, she found that elusive balancing point, pivoting softness with attack, a bright top range with a duskiness pervading her lower notes. She is dangerous. She is beautiful. She is fabulous.

Bizet demands a much less varied emotional palette for Camila Titinger‘s Micaëla to portray. Throughout, he sets her upon an earnest mission to deliver sorrowful messages to Don José from his dying mother. She sings her arias most beautifully, with an almost Puccinian rapture, the stamp of unconfined lyricism marking her entire performance.

Phillip Rhodes is the only principal we have seen before, most recently in Jo Davies’ short-lived revival of The Marriage of Figaro early last year. Here, as the toreador, Escamillo, he needs far less nuance and guile than that which Mozart challenged him, but his elegant, dark baritone has enough amorous resonance to turn many a girl’s head.

There is strong support too from Helen Evora‘s Mercedes and Amy Freston‘s Frasquita, worldly-wise and more than willing to use such a gift to advantage, and Stuart Laing‘s Remendado and Christopher Nairne‘s Morales, their banter song of Act 2 brought off with exquisite timing. Matthew Stiff‘s Zuniga sings with an arresting authority, which, perhaps, invites further engagement by this Company.

Garry Walker has had to wait a long fourteen months since his appointment as Opera North’s Music Director to lead a performance at home base. He conveyed Bizet’s glittering score with immaculate finesse and exemplary directness. First-desk woodwinds were all in very fine form, the conductor allowing plenty of time for expressive playing in their important solos.

The one great reservation of the night is director Edward Dick‘s setting of time and place, which seems over-thought, incongruous and plainly unnecessary. The cigarette factory girls and their lascivious admirers are transferred from the town square in Seville to a bawdy bar in some U.S. frontier town, complete with pool table and Pepsi hoarding, a theatre of bouffant wars between Ronettes and Supremes. Carmen is an exotic dancer, whose opening appearance involves an ostrich feather disrobing bathed in brothel-red lighting. Don José is a GI, Escamillio more a rodeo rider than bullfighter. Micaëla is still passed over by Don José, though she is clearly pregnant by him this time. The children no longer march with toy guns, but help backstage with the costumes. Carmen’s ultimate demise is foretold by a one-armed slot machine. The smugglers, normally given a sympathetic audience response as they eke out a living from an otherwise wretched existence, here carelessly dally in Class A powders, packing their contraband parcels into pneumatic tyres for border crossings.

Carmen is, perhaps, the first verismo opera, the title character a contradiction of demanding independence, yet yearning love, sexually exploited, but simultaneously exploitative. All this comes across in Bizet’s and his librettists’ scheme in 1875. It remains a world involving human behaviour and attitudes we would still fully recognise today.

Sung in French, with English titles, further performances will take place on Saturday 09 October at 3pm, then Tuesday 19, Thursday 21, Saturday 23, *Thursday 28 October, all at 7pm *audio-described. 7 pm shows have talks at 6 pm.

Tue 26 October at 1.30pm (dementia friendly)

Photographs provided by Opera North.

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