The Royal Opera's revival of Francesca Zambello's Carmen has nothing revolutionary or surprising in it, except for a real horse. The sets and costumes aren't going to rock your world, but the singing brings the house down. And ultimately, that's what we go for.
Like the glimmering girl in Yeats' Song of Wandering Aengus, who appears and disappears suddenly, and ‘faded through the brightening air', Carmen is the one who gets away and leaves you stewing – the nut you'll never crack. A gypsy in 18th-century Seville, she prizes freedom above all else and refuses to accept authority, until she meets the corporal Don José and succumbs to love. As she sings, love is ‘a wild bird that no one can tame' – like her.
In the title role, Anita Rachvelishvili (performing through December) could not have more sensuality and drive. She puts her cleavage and hips to work, her skirt is rarely below her knees and her voice is so strong, and as smooth as olive oil, that you sometimes wish the music were slower or lasted longer, so her voice could go on and on. Born in Georgia, she has played Carmen at La Scala and the Met and has the vocal and physical force to embody the heroine's ‘Live free or die trying' spirit.
Roberto Alagna, as Don José, matches Rachvelishvili in strength and conviction. Their duet Je vais danser en votre honneur, in Act II, produced cries of ‘Bravo' from the audience, and you feel in Alagna the corporal's the lack of control, thanks to destiny and love, which bring about his and Carmen's downfall.
The terra cotta-walled set, designed by Tanya McCallin, does little to manifest the feverishness in the opera, but evokes the Mediterranean palette and warmth. Corsets abound, and the most striking costumes belong to the toreadors, whose fitted outfits shimmer in yellow, silver and red. In Act II and Act IV, the playboy toreador Escamillo (Vito Priante) gets to enter and exit atop a black horse, but unfortunately he isn't always audible above the orchestra. As the country girl Micaëla, who loves Don José in vain, Verónica Cangemi sings with such earnestness, sweetness and strength that she creates a compelling case – perhaps too compelling – for the way of life Micaëla offers him.
Even for audience-members who barely know opera, most of the arias in Carmen – 'Toreador, Habanera' – are familiar and a treat. Fusing Spanish, gypsy and operatic influences, the music has helped keep the opera among the most cherished and most performed in history. That and the unanswerable questions it begs: Does Carmen really fall in love with Escamillo? Is it possible to deny authority absolutely, and live?
In the end, the audience was thrilled. The cast's curtain calls, with many bows and bouquets of flowers, went on for so long that the orchestra was gone by the time the thick red curtains closed. A hugely entertaining evening.