Carmen at the Royal Opera House review – ‘lively revival’

Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Photo: Tristram Kenton Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Carmen was a failure at its 1875 Paris premiere, the Opera Comique audiences not ready for its potent sex and violence. Bizet would be astonished that his final opera swiftly became the most popular of all time, withstanding treatments from flamenco to Bollywood. Francesca Zambello’s 2006 Royal Opera production is reassuringly traditional though, retaining a mid-19th century Seville setting with Tanya McCallin’s colourful lived-in costumes and spacious sets, and Paule Constable’s sun-drenched lighting. Although by no means an essential ingredient, there is plenty of spectacle too in this slick revival by Duncan Macfarland – live animals, abseiling gypsies, lively choreography (Arthur Pita/Sirena Tocco), action-packed fights (Mike Loades/Natalie Dakin), and bustling street scenes with a brilliantly animated children’s chorus.

Enthralling and joyous as all this is, it does pull focus from the domestic relationships at the heart of the story and the two leads in this fifth revival can’t quite compensate. Russian mezzo Elena Maximova cuts an ideally gypsy-like figure in the title role, sultry and agile, her voice robust and rounded – though lacking the tingle factor of Australian soprano Nicole Car’s winsome Micaela. Alexander Vinogradov brings Russian depth to toreador Escamillo and American tenor Bryan Hymel can’t be faulted for strength and sweetness, but he is an unimpassioned Jose – the final showdown between the lovers has little tension. Surely superstar Jonas Kaufmann will bring more danger when he takes over mid-run.

Emphasising the opera’s Comique origins, conductor Betrand de Billy maintains a fresh, taut pace. His briskness occasionally threatens clarity and stability, but it’s a generally effective and radiant account of this marvellously tune-packed score.

This lively revival of Zambello’s big-scaled, traditional Carmen confirms its status as a modern classic