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Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre: Carmen, Trouble in Tahiti, West Side Story Symphonic Dances and Halfway and Beyond

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83 My debut poetry pamphlet is available at wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
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Trouble and strife
As we cautiously fly the nest after the COVID-19 lockdown, Opera North finally has a chance to bring two delayed productions out of the wings.

Carmen, by Georges Bizet, was first performed at the Opéra-Comique, Paris in 1875 but this staging propels it into the twentieth century. The setting is a bar catering for soldiers, with GIRLS spelled out in electronic letters on the wall.

Carmen (Chrystal E. Williams) descends from the heavens in a red outfit and feathers. She is the fantasy figure who the men will do battle over. Even when she is handcuffed, her captor Don José (Erin Caves), is still under her command.

His love rival is Escamillo (Phillip Rhodes) who arrives on the scene looking and acting like a bad Elvis impersonator, boasting about his exploits in the bullring.

Salford Quays, Lowry Centre, Opera North, Carmen Georges Bizet, Trouble in Tahiti, West Side Story Symphonic Dances, Phoenix Dance Theatre, Phillip Rhodes, Chrystal E. Williams, Theatre Royal Newcastle
Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo and Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen with members of the Chorus of Opera North and Company. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.


The seeds of mutual destruction are sown and the rest of the drama is essentially concerned with how we arrive at the denouement. Don José is as interesting a character as Carmen. He is torn between passion for her and duty towards his pregnant fiance, Micaela (Camila Titinger).

In her long coat and clutched handbag she is the antithesis of Carmen. But Camila Titinger held the audience in spellbound rapture as she performed her heartfelt aria: Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante.

Bizet's main musical numbers in Carmen are infectious and accessible without being trite. The only downside is that they make the more expositional scenes seem to drag in comparison. Equally, though Carmen has some wonderfully poetic lines, the lines sung by the soldiers seem unnecessarily flat. Would they really use phrases like 'they're a funny lot' when describing the crowds they see in the square? It felt as though the libretto needed a refresh.

If the message of Carmen is that all is unfair in love and war, then Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti is about the struggle of maintaining magic when the honeymoon period has passed. Sam (Quirijn de Lang) and Dinah (Sandra Piques Eddy) are on the surface, the post-war American ideal of professional husband and domestic-goddess wife. The problem is that they can't get through a meal without falling out and making accusations against each other.

Unlike the four-act structure of Carmen, Bernstein's one-act opera takes the form of scenes from a marriage which take a rocky path towards some sort of resolution.

Bernstein's percussive, brassy jazz score is compelling. Of the more lyrical and mournful passages, the scene in which both Sam and Dinah sing independently about their longing to return to 'the garden where we began' is particularly affecting.

Salford Quays, Lowry Centre, Opera North, Carmen Georges Bizet, Trouble in Tahiti, West Side Story Symphonic Dances, Phoenix Dance Theatre, Theatre Royal Newcastle, Quirijn de Lang, Sandra Piques.
Quirijn de Lang as Sam and Sandra Piques Eddy as Dinah. Photo credit: Richard H Smith.


The lighting design, by Charles Edwards, also poignantly conveys the loneliness of the characters. This is particularly true of Junior (Isaac Sarsfield), the son dressed as a cowboy, who is neglected in Sam and Dinah's crossfire.

The second half of the Bernstein double bill is a treat. The orchestra, conducted by Antony Hermus, revels in the West Side Story score, as Phoenix Dance Theatre flex their limbs on stage. Even though nothing is sung, it is impossible not to hear Stephen Sondheim's sublime lyrics in your head, especially when the staccato notes of Maria flutter up from the pit.

The symphonic dances from West Side Story are preceded by Halfway and Beyond, written and spoken by Khadijah Ibrahim - which demonstrates how rhythmic poetry can be used as an enchanting inspiration for dance.

Salford Quays, Lowry Centre, Opera North, Carmen Georges Bizet, Trouble in Tahiti, West Side Story Symphonic Dances, Phoenix Dance Theatre, Aaron Chaplin, Stephen Quildan, Shawn Willis
Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre's production of Bernstein's West Side Story Symphonic Dances. Aaron Chaplin, Stephen Quildan and Shawn Willis. Photo credit: Richard H Smith.


Carmen continues its tour: Theatre Royal, Nottingham 17, 19 November and also 18 March 2022; Leeds Grand Theatre 12, 16, 18 February 2022; back at The Lowry on 10 March; Theatre Royal, Newcastle 25 March. The last aria will be sung at Hull New Theatre 31 March and 2 April. The Bernstein Double Bill tour ends at Theatre Royal, Nottingham on 18 and 20 November.





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Why? Opera North welcome audiences back with the songs and dances of Bernstein and Bizet
When: Carmen on tour until 2 Apr 2022
Phone: 0113 243 9999
Where: The Lowry, Salford Quays
Cost: See website for details https://thelowry.com/whats-on/
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