The story of Carmen is a tale of people at the bottom of the heap; factory workers, gypsies, bullfighters, ordinary soldiers, yet the romance of Spain and Bizet’s exuberant and unforgettable tunes have combined to give us a prettified, glamorous idea of Carmen, full of flamenco costumes, castanets, handsome toreadors and none of the rough edges. Daniel Kramer’s new production of Carmen for Opera North goes straight back to the heart of the story – as the promotional literature put it, “passion, obsession, destruction”.

© Tristram Kenton
© Tristram Kenton

The action has been moved to Seville, Ohio, a dusty, neglected place where utter boredom rules by day, and where at night the only thing to do is sit around in tatty plastic chairs outside a trailer, drinking beer, eating takeout pizza and getting laid. For entertainment, there may be a dog fight on. It’s seedy and tacky, it’s not in the least bit glamorous and it’s the perfect setting for Carmen.

Heather Shipp’s passionate singing in the title role brought out all Carmen’s sexiness, whilst her acting revealed a vulnerable, fragile girl who doesn’t quite know how to handle either her own desires or those she provokes in every man who meets her. She flirts with Zuniga, the lecherous, seedy police chief, played wonderfully by Keel Watson, lets him fondle her, then wonders why she finds herself being dunked in a bucket of water by him when she teases him and rejects him. The scene is reversed in act two, when Carmen, standing in a paddling pool after dancing for José begins to strip for him, only to find him calling a stop when he hears the bugle calling him back to duty, and, painfully humiliated again she has to scramble back into her clothes.

Peter Auty played José as a bumbling, awkward police deputy, in khaki shorts with neatly turned-down white socks, a man clearly completely out of his depth with Carmen, unable to handle her. One sensed that when Carmen began her striptease, he was quite relieved to hear the bugle giving him an excuse to stop her antics, but by playing him this way, his singing sounded too hesitant and at times his voice was lost behind the orchestra or the other singers. It was only in the last scene that he suddenly burst into life and we were finally convinced that under that meek exterior there was true passion.

The staging of that final act really brought home the idea that the story of Carmen is one that can happen anywhere. The stage was dark and empty, the crowds watching the dog fight were all in black, and with their backs to the audience. All we had was José, no longer in his neatly pressed uniform but looking ragged and unkempt, and Carmen in a long black coat and a red evening dress. Suddenly we could be back in Spain again, or we could be anywhere, any time, with anyone who has ever been driven to destructive madness by jealousy or anyone who has let their desires overrule all sense.

Kostas Smoriginas was perfect as Escamillo; he looked fabulous, his singing was cool and controlled, and his first entrance, swaggering down the steps of the trailer, flanked by grubby cheerleaders, and leading his muzzled bulldog was a moment of pure trashy theatre. Annie Gill and Claire Wild in seedy goth get-up were fabulous as Carmen’s friends Mercedes and Frasquita and their flawless singing bubbled with energy.

Opera North’s production may not have looked like a traditional Carmen but it certainly felt like one in spirit. In terms of the plot, cutting out the smugglers didn’t really work, and the truncated act 3 was a bit confusing, but it’s opera, so a watertight plot is of only secondary importance. My companion this evening had never been to an opera before, and she loved every minute of it, so whatever the traditionalists may make of Daniel Kramer's approach, Opera North have won a new convert to opera, which can only be a good thing.