I had never seen an opera until now, and I was told by an avid opera goer that Carmen was an excellent show for an opera ‘virgin’. I was definitely not left disappointed.
Based on Merimee’s 1845 novella, Carmen is a four act opera which centres around the story of Carmen, performed fabulously by Chrystal E Williams, an attractive woman with the air of a femme fatale who seduces the soldier Don Jose, which quickly leads to his arrest. From here on in, we watch Don Jose fall deeper for Carmen to the extent of moral regression as he even fights an officer out of sexual envy.
Then there is Escamillo, a character that was comedic whether this was intended or not. The comic effect of his character has been critiqued for this production, however, knowing the origins of Carmen as part of the Opera-Comique, he most certainly brought the light-hearted nature of the genre. If you are to know any song from Carmen, it is the infamous score of ‘Les Toreador’, which Escamillo performs with great spirit and bravado.
As much as I have brushed over the trajectory of the story, where it is located in time and space is ambiguous. The original setting of Seville is not certain, but the elements of bull fighting and traditional Spanish outfits carry its culture. From Spanish culture to a French script, Carmen refuses to be pinned down. A bold neon sign lighted with the English word ‘GIRLS’ dominates the stage in some scenes and contributes to this shifting nature of Carmen through language. Carmen is eternalised, constantly being translated and retranslated whether that is from set, script or cultural space and time.
The same could be said for Carmen as she refuses to be pinned down: in rehearsals, the director Edward Dick said he intended to empower Carmen. He certainly manages this. She is bold, fierce, and uses her female sexuality to reclaim power from men. In one of the earlier scenes, she has Don Jose in a seat, giving him a dance, and we see his power quiver before her beauty. She finds freedom in her sexuality as her character uses the burlesque boldness to liberate herself.
This idea of bull-fighting, an idea predominantly carried by the character of Escamillo, becomes a true representation between the men of this story, as Don Jose attempts to fight Escamillo in Act Three. Carmen is the red flag that every man runs towards. However, she has a choice: she is interested in Escamillo and has become bored of Don Jose’s obsession with her.
Yes, Carmen is the eponymous character of the opera, but the real protagonist is Bizet’s music. It carries emotion, permeates itself beyond the words of the performers sinking into each soul and flirting with each audience member. The music alone does the speaking. I shut my eyes at one point to see if this was true, and indeed it was. Without any understanding of the words and no reliance on the subtitles, it spoke on its own. Bizet’s composition certainly is transformative.
And then there is the inevitable denouement. For someone who didn’t know the storyline beforehand, it was almost expected that Carmen was going to die. As Edgar Allan Poe says, literature is obsessed with ‘the death of a beauiful woman’. As much as Carmen tries to evade this fate by being honest with Don Jose that they will never be together, he cannot handle the rejection.
Once again, when a woman says no, there are fatal consequences. As enthralling as the story of Carmen is, we must question if it is a story no different from any other. Again, a woman dies at the hands of the male gaze.
Carmen’s death was somewhat an anti-climax as we knew it was going to happen. No story of retribution follows: her story is cut short with the close of the curtain.
Do not get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed Opera North’s production of Carmen and understand that it is trying to move with the changing concerns of society, but I can’t help but think that Carmen will forever be trapped within her narrative no matter how much a director tries to empower her.
All that being said, Carmen is an opera that has been rewritten and will be written again, and there is no doubt that Opera North’s Carmen has contributed to its eternal status on stage.
Carmen played at the Lowry for one night only, but it is touring the UK until April.
Sister Act, the stage musical based on the film of the same name, begins its UK tour at Palace Theatre Manchester – ahead of London run – starring Jennifer Saunders, Keala Settle, Lesley Joseph, Clive Rowe MBE, Lizzie Bea and Sandra Marvin