Review: Carmen keeps the subversive spirit but adds a modern touch

Played out in bombastic style by an accomplished orchestra, the timeless musical numbers are delivered flawlessly
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Georges Bizet’s Carmen was his one successful opera – albeit posthumously – and its uncompromising representations of proletarian life, and its warts-and-all showcase of the more immoral aspects of human nature, shocked audiences at its first Parisian performances back in 1875.

It tells the tale of a young soldier, Don Jose – played perhaps a touch overzealously by Sebastian Gueze – who falls in love with the titular character, Carmen, only to have his advances spurned in favour of those of the almost cartoonishly boisterous bullfighter, Escamillo, portrayed with machismo swagger by Gyula Nagy.  

A series of toing and froing ensues between the two as they vie for Carmen’s affections and, in the spirit of all good opera, ultimately, predictably, it all ends in tragedy. 

Photo: Tristram Kenton

With the same subversive spirit that governed the production of the original piece, however, there are attempts made by director Edward Dick to adapt the narrative to be more resonant with a modern audience, and for the most part, it pays off. 

Gone is the original setting of 19th century Spain, in favour of a heavily Americana inspired setting – seemingly around the early/mid 20th century, based on the vaudevillian costuming and the enormous, imposing neon sign that looms over proceedings with the word ‘Girls’, serving as the backdrop for most of the production.

Inspired use of lighting and fog effects by Rick Fisher help to further emphasise the seedy nature of this underworld of vice and desperation, and in combination with the top-notch stage design by Colin Richmond, it really evokes a sense of this dark and unforgiving place. 

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Also receiving that modernising touch is the one-dimensional portrayal of its female characters, who, far from being the agency-free objects of wanton male obsession, are now fleshed out and given greater depth. 

One such change is to portray the titular lead – vivaciously realised by the excellent Chrystal E. Williams – as a single mother caught up in the infatuations of the male characters.

This recasting of the character in the role of heroine, rather than simply temptress, marks a fundamental departure from the source material, but a necessary reimagining to maintain relevance in the 21st century, I feel. 

It doesn’t alter the original narrative too much, and the fleshing out of its female characters, not least in its titular character, certainly strengthens the story. 

Photo: Tristram Kenton

I was, prior to this performance, a complete opera novice, and honestly didn’t know what to expect. It was the arias that struck an immediate chord, though, and prompted an ‘ahh, that’s where that piece of music is from’ realisation. 

Conducted by Anthony Hermus and played out in bombastic style by an accomplished orchestra, the timeless musical numbers are delivered flawlessly, and as I type these words, a part of my brain is still devoted to reciting the Les Toreadors on loop, such is its ear-worm impact. 

The other big number, Habanera, is equally as catchy and will, at the very least I’m sure, be hummed enthusiastically on the journey home from The Lowry

Widely seen as one of the world’s best known, and most accessible operas, it certainly served as a wonderful induction for me, and with the previously mysterious and alien world of the opera now demystified, I for one will be hoping to get back for more. 

Carmen was at The Lowry on Thursday 10th March. To see what else is coming up at The Lowry, click here.

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