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Waterfront Festival

Theatre Review: Opera North - Carmen

18 November 21 words: Gareth Morgan

Toe-tapping quality

Opera North’s return to the Theatre Royal stage, with Bizet’s perennial seat-filler Carmen, is one, even with its dark moments, to deeply enjoy. From the Soprano-esque BadaBing-like joint of the opening act to the chilling final image of the eponymous heroine’s death as watched by the silent eyes of the female chorus whilst the men continue to cheer the spectacle of the bulls, this production pulls no punches whilst transposing the action into a “Spain” with issues we would recognise now over those of 1875.

It feels more the world of a Narcos or the aforementioned Sopranos, all-rhinestoned seedy club and illicit drug-muling operation in the mountains. The Toreador March goes full line dance for this production, very ably led by the queered casting of Nando Messias as the inn keeper, Lillas Pastia. Reading the programme notes, director Edward Dick certainly succeeds encouraging the audience think about the attitudes embedded in the opera.

Chrystal E Williams, superb in the lead role of Carmen, sings beautifully and who, as she descends on a swing into her opening number, captivates from the moment she first graces the stage. Phillip Rhodes, as the Toreador Escamillo, wheeled in initially on a mechanical bull in his best red flares and tasselled jacket, is enjoyably large and bombastic. Erin Caves warms into his role of Don Juan becoming far more compelling post-interval and Camila Titinger’s Micaëla, in this staging, feels far more at risk as the pregnant young woman searching for her unborn child’s father.

In the design, the lighting stands out – strongly side lit, there is an enjoyment of the shadows cast and things glimpsed in sudden moments of illumination. The giant neon letters that loom above the action, the sparks of a welding torch, the all-seeing cast of a halogen strip bulb (brilliantly used in the “domestic” act 2). Costumes too a great fun and it is likely rare that the Theatre Royal has ever seen so many nipple-covering pasties or so recently after the Dolly Parton musical had as many Stetsons return to their stage either.

Musically, it’s a hoot – the score is what you know and love about the eminently hummable and drum along-able crowd pleaser of Bizet’s. It's a percussion heavy performance too, adding to the toe-tapping quality, with copious triangle of the prelude and the performers themselves accompanying the orchestra with tambourine and castanets there is a feel of Iberia from the rhythms of the music, despite it’s more modern Western feel.

Briefly though, it is the spectacle of being back in the theatre with principles, chorus, orchestra, the hush when the house lights go down and the romp from first notes of overture to the applause during the rounds of operatic bows that make being back after 19 months feel so special. It’s something we’ve really missed.

Opera North - Carmen plays at Nottingham's Theatre Royal on Wednesday 17 and Friday 19 November 2021, and Friday 18 March 2022.

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