I first saw Carmen in London about eighteen years ago, it was probably one of the first operas I’d seen and as a result it was another ten years before I was dragged kicking and screaming to sit through another. It was dull, I didn’t believe a word of it and it was neither engaging nor entertaining. It might well have been sung pitch perfect, but I wouldn’t have known and I certainly wouldn’t have cared.
I’ve now seen a few good operas over recent years, most of them performed by Opera North. I don’t consider myself an expert, far from it, but I must have seen thousands of plays and musical theatre. I’ve studied drama, even written a few, so I’d like to think I have some expertise in recognising good stuff when I see it. So it came as quite a shock to read some of the current reviews for Daniel Kramer’s Carmen at The Grand Theatre. I thought they must have seen a totally different performance to me.
The Carmen I saw on the first night was bold and daring. I felt as though I really understood the characters for the first time and the narrative had a clear through line. I really cared about Carmen, I felt as though I knew her, even understood her – she was a real person, warts and all. Heather Shipp can certainly act. She peeled back the layers of Carmen, exploring, revealing and exciting her audience. I’m sure it wasn’t a pitch perfect performance, but who wants perfection? Perfection is as dull as ditchwater.
Surely we want a director of an opera first performed in 1875 to breathe new life into it, take risks, and make it fresh and relevant to a new audience. Daniel Kramer does just that. His dare is frightening – I’m in awe of him. An audience can never second guess him. The performance is never dull, you will not look at your watch, try to stretch your legs or wonder how long it is until the interval. You will be sat on the edge of your seat, not knowing what might possibly be coming next. It is a wonderful performance, shocking in parts, as a good Carmen should be. Its imagery is a feast for the eye and senses, but be warned – it will stay with you. It will not wash over you. You will not leave the theatre whistling The Toreador, you will leave reeling, thinking about love and loss, sex and power, life and death.
My advice to you is to go and see it – it’s dazzling in its dare.
Kay Mellor OBE
Carmen performs at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 11 Feb and then on tour to Newcastle, Nottingham and The Lowry, Salford Quays. http://www.operanorth.co.uk/events/carmen/