Judging from the atmosphere of excitement before it even started, Opera North’s first major live performance after a break of 20 months came as a joyful relief for a capacity audience unencumbered by restrictions, but as a front-curtain announcement made clear, it came together in its final form only at the last moment. Tenor Rafael Rojas had pulled out a week earlier due to Long Covid. Erin Caves, his replacement as Don José, saved the day, and the company’s first Carmen for ten years turned out to be both crowd-pleasing and provocative.

Chrystal E Williams (Carmen)
© Tristram Kenton

As in its previous production, the location is a hazily-defined American border town where wide-brimmed hats are worn, but in this version the stage is initially dominated by a kind of cabaret club just for male customers, most of them soldiers. Director Edward Dick makes sure we get that this is part of a crudely sexist place where women are perceived though the male gaze: the opening scene is of a possibly nude woman posing behind a glittering, semi-transparent bead curtain beneath an enormous advertising sign spelling out GIRLS. The idling, gawping soldiers’ harassment of any woman entering their territory is particularly pronounced. When Don José’s heavily pregnant fiancée Micaëla turns up to give him a message, she is blocked and mocked at every turn. This is not just going to be the story of an unfortunate man in the clutches of a traditional femme fatale.

Camila Titinger (Micaëla) and Erin Caves (Don José)
© Tristram Kenton

Carmen’s character is given added complexity, with the division between her assumed, protective self, ‘La Carmencita’, and her other, genuinely loving self being emphasised. A child is even invented for her, seen with other children (Opera North is so good at recruiting them) in a charming backstage scene which comes as a reminder that cigarette girls, along with sex workers, often have family responsibilities. Five small children appear in various crowd and dance scenes as well, obviously loving every moment. She was played by the charismatic mezzo Chrystal E Williams, who is first seen on a descending swing dressed in rose-pink and ostrich feathers. She brought both the necessary fire and a considerable amount of gentleness to her role, with a lithe voice and considerable acting skills, established from the start with her delicate rendering of “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”. Her Carmen is trapped in a situation which is not just timeless but distinctly modern and squalid, with predictions for love and death coming up not from playing cards but on a fruit machine.

Phillip Rhodes (Escamillo), Chrystal E Williams (Carmen) and the Chorus of Opera North
© Tristram Kenton

Caves blended into the cast beautifully, portraying a Don José who is more of a villain than is customary, with a powerful, wide-ranging voice which works well with Carmen’s, as in “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”. His brutality and his neglect of Micaëla stood out. Soprano Camila Titinger played her with considerable force and subtlety, the pathos very apparent whenever she appeared. Bass Matthew Stiff was impressive as a rich-voiced Zuniga, at times slightly Falstaffian, and baritone Phillip Rhodes ruled the stage as Escamillo, more of a rodeo star than a toreador as he waved his cowboy hat about, bringing a sense of exultation to his famous Toreador Song. On opening night, some of the audience clapped along. Carmen’s friends Frasquita (Amy Freston) and Mercédès (Helen Évora) both gave terrific, amusing performances. Opera North Chorus’ energetic ensemble work was as good as ever, and the orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker, was tightly managed as it dealt with the rousing qualities of Bizet’s music.

The Chorus of Opera North
© Tristram Kenton

Turning a story written from a very definite male perspective in Prosper Mérimée's original novella into one which elicits much more sympathy from the female side might not work perfectly, but this production provides thought-provoking modern resonances as well as an uplifting, tune-filled experience.