It’s been so long that I had to check my notes for when I last went to a live opera. According to my records, I went to The Marriage of Figaro and The Taming of the Shrew the same week as our hapless PM announced that we can “turn the tide of coronavirus” in 12 weeks. Well, that was March 2020 and here we are in November 2021. My review stated that “I braved the tram armed only with a bottle of hand sanitiser and a medicinal flask of gin”. This year, I added a mask to my armoury. But even during a crowded rush hour service to Salford’s Media City, I seemed to be one of the few to bother.

Despite my paranoia, it was well worth the trip. I can’t express what pure joy it was to be in a theatre again full of expectant anticipation for the curtain to rise on Bizet’s Carmen at The Lowry. In all my years as an opera correspondent (checks notes again…eight), I have never seen it before, even though it is probably the most famous opera in the world (please don’t tell anyone at the OperaWatch offices or I’ll have my licence revoked). You could almost touch the excitement. I was so overwhelmed that I actually cried during the second aria for no good reason other than because I was there.

Carmen by George Bizet, Opera North, The LowryIt is Opera North’s first production of Carmen in 10 years, which might go some way to explaining why I hadn’t seen it. And what a glorious, funny, rude and moving production it was. It tells the tragic tale of Carmen (Chrystal E Williams), part exotic dancer, good time girl and gangster’s moll but, above all, a stunning seductress. She focuses her wiles on soldier Don Jose (Erin Caves) who is being drawn back to his home village by a letter from his mother delivered by the heavily pregnant Micaela (Camila Titinger).

While I was convinced by Caves’ performance as a romantic lead from the beginning, I was slightly distracted by his loose-fitting army uniform, which reminded me of Private Duane Doberman. To cut a complex operatic narrative short, Don Jose is booted out of the army for his love of Carmen who, in the meantime, has switched her affections to toreador and part-time Elvis impersonator, Escamillo (Phillip Rhodes). Don Jose loses the love of Carmen to Escamillo, I mean who could resist the wiles of an Elvis impersonator? Well, apparently not Don Jose who kills Carmen in a fit of jealous rage.

Carmen by George Bizet, Opera North, The LowryThis was a fantastic performance by all involved, not least Williams who made her Opera North debut in the title role. Beautiful and sexy, she sung powerfully to inhabit her vibrant, tragic spirit. Her Habanera, the most famous aria from the opera, was stunning. Caves and Rhodes as Don Jose and Escamillo both sang with a committed machismo that would lead ultimately to her death.

There are a few final mentions, including set designer Colin Richmond whose giant neon ‘girls’ sign held the mise-en-scène together. The line dancing children were a genuine unexpected treat as was the Amy Winehouse lookalike bar owner, Lillas Pastia (Nando Messias), whose transformation from the late singer to a rhinestone cowboy took my breath away. To everyone involved in this wondrous production, I want to say thank you and bravo in these difficult times. Please don’t ever go away again.

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent