Seville in summer – it’s never looked as sun baked or as bronzed as in Francesca Zambello’s atmospheric production. This Carmen has been in rep at Royal Opera since 2006 and well deserves its repeated outings. The drama here plays out on a grand scale, making full use of Covent Garden’s huge stage. Designs are traditional, and the director remains faithful to the libretto, but not slavishly so, and he has a keen eye for the small details and additions that can bring the interactions to life. Interpretively though, it is a modest affair, clearly designed as a vehicle for the big-name singers who take their turns to populate it. That’s where this evening’s performance suffered, its cast serviceable, but lacking the standout performances the show required to lead it.

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Atmosphere is all in this staging. The sets, by Tanya McCallin, are all featureless, ochre walls bearing down on dusty, deserted squares. Most of the designer’s energies are put into the first act. Here we have a convex wall to the left (the cigarette factory) and a diagonal one to the right (the barracks). A lone orange tree forms the focal point for the square between, and there is a long fountain arrangement down the left side of the stage. Plenty of crowd action in this first act, too much perhaps; when the soldiers begin the story proper it takes a minute or so to locate them on the stage. But the children’s chorus works well, mimicking the soldiers as they parade.

Less to see in the second and third acts. The sheer scale of the set makes it difficult to evoke intimacy in the tavern scene, which is created simply by swinging round the diagonal wall to create a backdrop. The set reverts to the original formation for the last two acts, with a huge awning hung from the left side to suggest the smuggler’s hideout in the third. The big prop for the last act is a huge Madonna icon, surrounded by candles and wheeled though on a tall bier. But by then the production has moved away from grand spectacle.

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Zambello’s directorial touches (no doubt embellished by revival director Duncan MacFarland) are subtle but effective. When Michaela leaves after giving Don José his mother’s letter in the first act, she silently returns a moment later, and José catches her watching him, making sure he has read it. When Escamillo sings the Toreador Song, one of the gypsy women approaches him midway though, but swoons before she reaches him. Little touches – nothing too confrontational, but all have something to add.

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As suggested above, the cast here was serviceable, but rarely exceptional. As Carmen, Elena Maximova has stage presence and vocal power, but lacks allure. However much leg she shows from under her voluminous skirts in the first act dance numbers, the eye repeatedly wanders back up to the surtitles. Her voice is distinctive, but has a wearying metallic tang. Bryan Hymel may have been having a bad night as Don José, a head cold perhaps, but his upper register often seemed insecure.

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Escamillo was played with impressive theatrical flair by Alexander Vinogradov. His voice is low for the part, but his sheer weight of tone made for a memorable performance – and the grandest Toreador Song of recent memory. Samuel Dale Johnson was impressive as Moralès, smarmy and lecherous, there was little sympathy for his fate at the end of the second act. The most accomplished vocal performance of the evening came from Nicole Car as Micaëla, her projection ideal and her tone beautiful throughout. Her third act aria was the highlight of this performance.

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If many of the performances onstage seemed routine, the sounds from the pit were more inspiring. Conductor Bertrand de Billy gave a lively and propulsive account of the score. He never took anything for granted, carefully shaping every phrase – pushing into faster sections, lingering at the more piquant cadences. This was a considered and elegant account. A shame though, that occasionally both the singers and the players seemed to be taken by surprise, either by his rubato, or by his often brisk tempos. First night qualms no doubt.

It’s a long revival, continuing until 30 November. The fact that the conductor has such a strong vision for the piece, and that most of the comprimario roles are well-sung, should work in its favour, as it’s revolving-door casting with the leads – three Don Josés and two Carmens. Jonas Kaufmann is even dropping in for two performances (14, 16 November). Add talent like that to the top of the cast sheet and everything should fall into place.

3 stars

Gavin Dixon

(Photos : Catherine Ashmore / ROH)

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