It is not generally advisable to choose an opera director who clearly has the utmost contempt for the piece. Sadly, in a rare lapse of quality control, this is what Opera North appears to have done with Daniel Kramer and Carmen. Kramer’s production is not even funny as parody and seldom manages anything more significant.
Updating an opera or changing its location is not necessarily a bad thing – sometimes quite the opposite – but there must be some meaningful connection with the original. Kramer lazily uses the now familiar conceit of an American town of the same name, but it doesn’t fit. The Prelude is accompanied by a noisy display of synchronised groin-grabbing by what seems to be the Seville Police Department. When they are later replaced by guys in Boy Scout uniforms, it emerges that they are “the night guard” – of what? Seville Town Square? The dislocation between Carmen and this farrago also deprives us of the entire smugglers’ plot, sets modern western dancing to traditional Spanish rhythms and turns Escamillo into the owner of a fighting pit-bull!
And there’s worse. The Opera North chorus is particularly adept at individual characterisation, but here the assembly of maladjusted grotesques they have to portray is simply embarrassing – the mass screaming is pretty irritating, too. The lack of respect goes way beyond the text and extends to music that is cut because it doesn’t fit the concept or drowned out by noisily irrelevant stage action. There is a fundamental dishonesty about the whole thing: having taken the bizarre decision to perform in the original French despite the American setting, Opera North deliberately mistranslates the surtitles so that we don’t realise the extent of the distortion.
It’s a shameful evening, made worse by the large number of youngsters present who think they’ve seen Carmen. The second star is earned by the noble efforts of the much put-upon cast. Heather Shipp’s commitment as Carmen is terrific, even when required to do a spot of miked karaoke. Peter Auty (Don Jose) avoids anything resembling acting for nearly three acts (wisely, on the evidence of the last act and a bit) and fields a robust lyrical tenor. He relishes the temporary absence of nonsense to give a fine account of the Flower Song. In fact, all distraction-free scenes between Shipp and Auty are musically impressive, though no relationship is established between the characters. I don’t know where the idea of Michaela as a dizzy neurotic blonde with big hair and an increasingly blue face comes from, but the admirable Anne Sophie Duprels does as much as anyone could in the circumstances. So, too, does Kostas Smoriginas whose fresh-sounding baritone even overcomes addressing the Toreador Song to a pit-bull.
Most in need of sympathy are Frasquita, Mercedes, Dancairo and Remandado, stripped of credibility, all their plot lines and most of their music, and the orchestra who play very decently for Andreas Delfs when you can hear them and when the depressingly coarse tone of the evening doesn’t infiltrate the pit.