Bryan Hymel as Don José and Elena Maximova as Carmen in Carmen (ROH)
Bryan Hymel as Don José and Elena Maximova as Carmen in Carmen (ROH)
© Catherine Ashmore

Power to the children in this revival of Carmen, and high fives to the Royal Opera House Youth Opera Company, to Suzi Zumpe their vocal director and to their stage director William Edelstein for helping them steal the show. It's the children's energy that carries the ensemble numbers, while their well-drilled French pronunciation could teach the adult soloists a thing or two (although isolated moments of perfect French from native speaker Nicolas Courjal as Zuniga are an aural oasis). All they need now is a snappier name.

It's not only the juveniles who impress, however. Nicole Car is a bewitchingly fine Michaëla, the home-town lass who supplies Bizet's beguiled anti-hero Don José with a conscience. The Australian soprano spins a warm, clear timbre like dew upon a thread, lending spice to the prospect of her Tatyana in Eugene Onegin later this season. If music be the food of love it's hard to fathom why Bryan Hymel's José would ever spurn her for the vocally wayward Carmen of Elena Maximova.

The Russian mezzo's voice is a suitably sultry instrument, but her tuning can be sour; on opening night the Habanera, Carmen's signature number, started sharp and stayed that way. And her technique of swilling notes round her mouth before they reach the air adds a chewy resonance that exacerbates her poor French. Yet she acts the part well: this Carmen flashes the pheromones and bangs a mean tambourine.

Hymel, today's golden tenor and a worthy rival to Jonas Kaufmann (who joins this cast for a paltry two performances in mid-November), is in splendidly stentorian form as Don José. A genuine stage animal, he plays his unhinged final scene with near-Method focus. Only some flat diphthongs keep him from the heights - a shortcoming that's more marked here than on his recent album of French opera arias.

'De Billy whizz'

Bizet's dysfunctional love quartet is completed by the nasal Escamillo of Alexander Vinogradov, a capable bass who looks uncomfortable aboard Louis the horse and sings heroically but without much fire.

Of Francesca Zambello's now-familiar 2006 production, ably revived though it is by Duncan McFarland and Sirena Tocco, what more is there to say except that it's surely run its course. It has a look that's hard to love. Tanya McCallin's lowering set is consciously synthetic: its ochre MDF-style flats and shiny floor seem to say 'Bizet's musical evocation of Spain isn't authentic so let's reflect that'. The biggest problem, though, is that it's so ground-bound. With large ensembles but no scenic levels on which to distribute them, the detailed crowd scenes tend to look like random hordes.

Neither is definition among the comprimario characters a Zambello strength. She reduces Frasquita and Mercédès (Vlada Borovko and Michèle Losier) to ciphers - Carmen's backing singers - while only the experienced stagecraft of stalwarts Grant Doyle and Timothy Robinson prevents Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado from blending into the background.

Conductor Bertrand de Billy races through the preludes to acts one and four as if there's no tomorrow; indeed, his fast tempo choices bring the opera in 15 minutes ahead of its announced finishing time. It's understandable in the circumstances that the ROH Orchestra has a few ragged moments. Only Hymel in his Flower Song succeeds in putting the brakes on the de Billy whizz, and even he has to fight for it.

Carmen runs in repertoire at the Royal Opera House until 30 November.