Carmen Mid-West

Tom Sutcliffe on a lively but unsuccessful transposition of Carmen to the American mid-West

An opera like Carmen brings out all sorts of attitudes in its audience and critics. Opera North’s new production by Daniel Kramer at the Grand Theatre, Leeds (in rep for the next two months and touring around the north) strenuously avoids what its director regards as clichés, mainly by transposing it to Seville, Ohio in the American mid-West with police in shorts and Mountie-style hats, no bull-fighting, no gypsies, and absolutely no smuggling. Escamillo is proud devoted owner of a champion fighting pit-bull terrier, Zuniga a sadistic corrupt police commander who relishes repeatedly brutalizing Carmen, and in the last act there is no procession of toreadors, no ominously uplifting sense of celebration.


I first saw Bizet’s great masterpiece when I was four, from the back of the balcony at the King’s Theatre, Southsea (it was the Carl Rosa and I was taken by my grandmother who loved the theatre and music). I have seen both weird and wonderful productions since. This is probably the most popular opera ever written – because of Bizet’s memorable atmospheric orchestral interludes and because of the fabulous songs. Even opera novices have some inkling what it’s about, all that Spanish flavour modulated for the French taste.

Hence a bit of crafty defamiliarization may well freshen up the unsettling provocative elements that add to its fascination. Yet, strange to say, the Observer critic, Fiona Maddocks, used her Sunday column to declare that she’d never liked the central character who she suspected was expressly designed to please men in the audience rather than women – like some page 3 model in the Sun.

Now, I’ve never as a critic bothered whether I liked operatic characters, just as I don’t care whether Evelyn Waugh or Richard Wagner was good company to be with (in both cases not). Sadly Heather Shipp, Opera North’s Carmen, does not have much of the star vocal charisma the role needs. Though Kramer makes her expose her breasts, page 3-style, she seems rather staid and bourgeoise. But surely Maddocks is missing the point. Carmen is meant to be (and to sound) sexier than all the other girls in the cigarette factory where she works, because she confidently knows her own mind. It’s she who, taking the initiative like a man, has the technique to seduce the ill-fated NCO Don José – whom she later rejects.

Low life

But the point of the story by the pioneering archaeologist Prosper Mérimée, with his liking for complex psychology, mystery and fables from remote places, is its engaging picture of low life. The girls strip off in the heat of the factory, we hear, and when they take their break to refresh themselves local blokes gather to see them sweating and relaxing – which makes Kramer’s decision to substitute for the lecherous Latin males of Spanish Seville an outing of elderly American pensioners utterly bizarre. Bizet in this anecdotal story is focusing our attention on a woman’s (revolutionary, until quite recently) ‘right to choose’ her man. Carmen is heroic in her determination to be free. In the final climactic scene, she stubbornly bravely accepts that the price of that freedom may be her own death – which is an interesting idea at any time.

The trouble with Kramer’s shifting of the story is it blurs all the relationships. Cutting almost all the spoken dialogue (the opera being sung in French doesn’t gel well with its Americanization) leaves the story a complete mess. The production purports to be realistic but never makes much sense. Why get rid of the bullfighter? Escamillo, who wins Carmen’s commitment, routinely risks his life for his profession. In one sense when Carmen at the end of the opera outside the bullring confronts the desperate José, the scene is just like a matador with a bull, though it is Carmen who is the matador and José who – provoked beyond endurance – charges and kills her. It is an epic heroic conflict.

Actually it is immaterial which of Carmen and José is bull and which matador: both are equally and fatally engaged, and the bullring backdrop subliminally reminds us what is at stake. To cut the bull-fighting is to destroy the engine of this opera – whether we are Barcelonans bent on suppressing the art of the bullring or not. Reducing Escamillo to a vulgar barbaric enthusiast for dog-fights strips him of any shred of the dignity which makes him a telling model. And Kramer does nothing to remedy Peter Auty’s being so English as José, almost devoid of passionate assertiveness, while the romantic-looking Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo is far too house-trained for a dog fighter.

Lost ambiguity

Carmen makes her mark as a singer. At Lillas Pastia’s bar she seems like a professional. But Kramer subjects her to such mistreatment by Keel Watson’s unlovely Zuniga that all her dignity vanishes too. Kramer is not trying to make us believe something. All his attention-seeking sometimes comic wheezes are superficially lively and energizing, so that audience and critics felt like giving him reasonable marks for trying. Actually he hasn’t a clue about the ambivalent meanings buried in the piece. He wants to make us feel sorry for Carmen, I think, his innate American sentimentality off-beam as usual. Her wilfulness and the ambivalence in José about everything is what makes the opera so profoundly intriguing. We learn imaginatively from what we cannot fathom. Kramer merely substitutes different clichés for what he deems the clichés in the original.

But this is an age when guests on BBC Two’s Arts Review programme after Newsnight can astonish you with their ignorance and lack of experience. Discussing the National Theatre’s new Twelfth Night I heard two of the panel say they had never seen nor read this wonderful Shakespeare play – and apparently they found it hard to follow. English National Opera is obsessed with directors who are opera virgins. Kramer is not that new to opera. But he has no special or telling vision to bring to the piece. Andreas Delfs, a German conductor, made the music sound delicate and slightly uncertain. Bizet survived, but deracinated. ND