The popularity of Bizet's 'Carmen' leaves many opera lovers knowing exactly what they want to hear and see before even entering the theatre. We're used to drama and passion, and to the clichéd black lace and bullfights- but what happens when this much-loved classic is placed in the hands of a director known for unconventionality?

Tristram Kenton
Tristram Kenton

Opera North's new 'Carmen' is the vision of young American director Daniel Kramer, who worked on Rufus Wainwright's first opera 'Prima Donna' and achieved great success with Birtwistle's 'Punch and Judy' at ENO in 2008. His production is a long way from 19th century Spain, transporting the action to an American trailer park and extracting humour from a plot so often dominated by tragedy. It has already proved to be divisive, attracting applause and criticism from audiences and critics alike. I'm firmly on the side of the applauders, but have to admit that my journey to appreciating its bravery and inventiveness was rocky.

Part of Kramer's mission for 'Carmen' was to give each chorus member a distinct identity, and this led to a huge amount of things taking place on the stage during Act I. Don Jose's colleagues played noisy ball games throughout the overture, and were joined by lego-like caricatures of townspeople, dragging plastic deck chairs around the stage and creating humorous little vignettes. They were undoubtedly interesting and funny individually, but somewhat distracting from both the music and the themes of the opera as whole. As the real action began, the comedy staging continued, with Zuniga (sung by Keel Watson) seeming to dance throughout, and Anne Sophie Duprels' Micaela being groped by soldiers in a scene played for laughs rather than menace.

Heather Shipp is a wonderful Carmen. Her sound is velvety and seductive and she is a compelling actress, but it was hard to appreciate her in the early part of the opera, when everything was so tightly choreographed and geared towards comedy. When the drama came, and Carmen was soaked in a bucket of water then kicked in the back, she gave Peter Auty's Don Jose a pained look which grounded the connection between them in sympathy rather than lust, changing the whole ethos of the opera.

Act II was the turning point. From the moment Soutra Gilmour's beautiful trailer park set was revealed, I felt the atmosphere change. Carmen emerged from the mass of big hair and cowboy boots to sing a wonderful 'Les tringles des sistres tintaient', dancing barefoot amongst the coloured fairy lights in her simple white dress and stopping to pick up a karaoke microphone along the way. Her voice is so good that it seemed a shame to throw away part of the aria in favour of a strange impersonation of a mewing cat (the comedy is never far away.)

At this point, I was wondering how Escamillo's 'Votre toast' would fit into the trailer park setting, but before I had much time to ponder it, he burst onto the stage clad in gold chains and a nylon tracksuit. This Escamillo is entirely modern, and despite singing about the atmosphere of the bull fight, his sport of choice appeared to be illegal dog fighting. With a very well behaved pit bull on a lead, he jumped from picnic table to paddling pool, smearing tomato ketchup on the chests of his adoring female fans. Kostas Smoriginas is perfect for the role, possessing a charisma and aesthetic appeal to match his rich, dark voice. His repertoire ranges from Mozart to Verdi to Puccini, but perhaps most notably he appeared as Angelotti in the Royal Opera House's most recent Tosca, hiding from Bryn Terfel's Scarpia. This is surely a bass baritone to watch.

But what of Don Jose? If you see a lot of opera, the chances are you'll have experienced Peter Auty before. He was a company principal at the Royal Opera House until 2002, and is a regional opera regular. If you don't see a lot of opera, you will definitely have unknowingly experienced him as the boy who sang 'Walking In The Air' in the film 'The Snowman.' His cardiganned Don Jose cut a sad figure, sexless and safe but hugely sympathetic. Up until his release from prison in Act II, he seemed to fade into the background, but when alone with Carmen after the excitement of the trailer park party, he came into his own and the chemistry between these two principal characters was wonderful. They flirted somewhat shyly, with Carmen clowning her way through 'Je vais danser en votre honneur' in the hope of winning her man with laughter. When 'La fleur que tu m'avais jetee' came, it was simple and beautiful, and I listened to Auty's sweet, lyrical voice with a bit of a lump in my throat.

With the smugglers nowhere to be seen, Act III moved very quickly. Micaela's 'Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante' was a real highlight, but there was hardly time to blink before the forest disappeared into the rafters and the preparation for Escamillo's dog fight marked the beginning of Act IV. Here, the orchestra seemed much more energetic, and the chorus, now unified, sounded much larger than their number. By the time the opera reached its tragic climax, an emotionally wrought atmosphere had been successfully generated, and as the curtain fell on Auty's desperate, kneeling Don Jose, I was exactly where I needed to be.

Leaving the theatre, there was great debate. Some of the audience were enthusiastic about Kramer's unusual vision, others felt it departed too much from the traditional versions of 'Carmen' they had come to expect. Words that were notably absent from this analysis were 'okay' and 'fine'- much like the plot of the opera itself, it seemed to come down to love or hate. I emerged firmly in the love camp, but with lots things to talk about. Maybe the fact that this production will spark debate for a long time to come is the real triumph for Opera North.