When Francesca Zambello’s production of Carmen first burst onto the Royal Opera House stage in 2006 it felt like a revelation. With its angular sets and exuberant staging, here was a thoroughly modern approach to capturing the Spanish essence of the opera about toreros, gypsies and smugglers.
No revival since, however, has truly recaptured what was achieved on that first occasion. This is partly because no subsequent cast has quite lived up to the original (Elīna Garanča as Carmen last year was a notable exception), and partly because the magic of the set-up can cast its spell only once.
On a first viewing we may be bowled over by the cast of hundreds and Tanya McCallin’s rusted orange sets that exude metaphorical heat. Watch again, however, and the mismatch between these two elements becomes all too apparent. Employing 150 performers as well as real horses, donkeys and chickens heightens the realism, which is at odds with the sets that were never designed to capture the authentic colours or architecture of Seville. As a result, the performers struggle to feel an affinity with their surroundings, although there remains much to enjoy in the choruses of the rowdy factory girls and boisterous children, and in the spellbinding ensemble performance of Les tringles des sistres tintaient.
As Carmen, Christine Rice’s voice is thick, mature and expressive, but her acting is not as seductive as her singing, and her performance of L’amour est un oiseau rebelle consequently falls flat. Nevertheless, Rice makes this Carmen attractive and alluring through her quiet, inner intensity, which comes to the fore as she throws her flower to Don José and then sings Près des remparts de Séville. Her sense of resignation as she makes no attempt even to pretend that she loves the corporal at the end is also deeply affecting.
The one unqualified success of the production is Maija Kovalevska as Micaëla. Pure voiced and innocent at the start, she undergoes an immense journey as she braves going to the smugglers’ hideout and then delivers the most impassioned performance of Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante. As Don José, there is a slight hesitancy about Bryan Hymel’s performance which means that he really has to plumb the depths of Parle-moi de ma mère! and La fleur que tu m'avais jetée before his voice truly shines, although when it does the sound is extremely rewarding. Aris Argiris sacrifices something of the swaggering alpha male to make Escamillo such a dashing charmer, but with the result that his performance sometimes feels underwhelming.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under the baton of Constantinos Carydis, delivers a smooth, well balanced sound, demonstrates incredible attention to detail, and really allows the textures of the different instruments to come through. All this, however, is slightly at the expense of energy, panache and a certain Spanish razzmatazz. Given all that the orchestra does achieve, this could be deemed a necessary sacrifice, but the problem is symbolic of the production as a whole. The staging is so complex that it requires a high degree of polish to hold everything together, meaning that minor defects in any area mar the overall effect far more than they strictly should. Nevertheless, though this revival may add little to previous ones, if you haven’t seen the production already you should seriously consider making the trip.