Carmen is one of the most iconic operas, with the popularity of individual musical numbers giving everyone some idea of its subject and the fatal trajectory of its gypsy heroine.
With a monumental but adaptable unit set by Leslie Travers, movement by Denni Sayers that slips seamlessly in and out of the dance numbers, and fight sequences by Lisa Connell that are shocking in their realism, Jo Davies’ production places the action in the 1970s in the Brazilian favelas, where the military is on hand to maintain order.
There’s some revised dialogue, but Davies and her team essentially stick with the libretto that dismayed the first-night audience back in 1875, with its depiction of a woman determined to live by her own rules rather than do as she was told by any man. This is a Carmen production for the #MeToo generation.
Director and cast reveal many truths about the piece, notably in the charismatic portrayal of the title role by Virginie Verrez, delectably sung and physicalised with assurance.
Dimitri Pittas as Don Jose is a powerful presence – terrifying in the final scene where Carmen’s former lover turns into her murderous stalker – but his handling of the music is rough. Anita Watson’s Micaela also has vocal insecurities.
As the bullfighter Escamillo, though, Phillip Rhodes’ macho swagger matches Verrez, while Ross Ramgobin’s leering Morales and Henry Waddington’s sleazy Zuniga represent the predatory soldiers at their worst.
The company’s chorus and children’s chorus are vitally engaged throughout, while Welsh National Opera’s music director Tomas Hanus and the orchestra blend the score’s subtleties with its disturbingly violent impulses.