Francesca Zambello’s Carmen is an avowedly populist production deploying a pruned score, spoken dialogue and traditional costuming. Tanya McCallin’s looming terracotta set is repositioned to showcase a series of busy, large-scale tableaux that look best from the cheap seats (the choreographer is Arthur Pita). As with most musicals, there’s less room for probing psychological insights.
The polyglot cast is rather shown up by Roberto Alagna. Taking a while to find his best vocal form in what is surprisingly his first Don Jose in the UK, he does make every word intelligible. Back in the role of Escamillo, that fine singer Ildebrando D’Arcangelo looks tremendous but struggles with both the low-lying tessitura and the French text. He enters on horseback in an extravaganza that also gives us a live donkey - twice. Another remarkable artist, the affecting Liping Zhang is not entirely at ease with Micaela.
Elina Garanca’s Carmen provides the star turn. With her superbly focused, honeyed tone, perfect intonation and elegant physical presence, she lacks the tigerish qualities - and the castanets - often associated with the heroine. She does all that the production requires of her in the way of sexual innuendo, yet turns almost regal in her moving final scene with Alagna, played out on a deserted stage with the set reconfigured to represent the curve of Seville’s bullring. Were the production style more radical, one might conclude that some ideological point about social mobility is being made. The smaller parts include a game Frasquita from Eri Nakamura.
Notwithstanding a few problems of co-ordination with the stage, Bertrand de Billy conducts with some pizzazz.