Calixto Bieito has form; he’s long been seen as opera’s bad boy, with a string of excesses behind him.  ENO’s last production of Carmen, by the film director Sally Potter, was ample proof that Bizet’s masterwork is far from foolproof and many London operagoers have awaited Bieito’s 2010 Barcelona staging with anticipation. While by no means traditional, it’s a much more staid affair than earlier productions of Don Giovanni and A Masked Ball and all the better for it. 

What prevents the evening from being an all-out triumph are central performances that don't quite ignite but melt into an otherwise impressive ensemble.  Ruxandra Donose’s Carmen is stripped of the usual clichés – fiery coquettishness, sultry sensuality, pseudo-flamenco posturing – but has little else to replace them.  She acts subtly but it’s a character that doesn’t lend itself to subtlety, so while it’s a good performance it’s not quite Bizet’s irresistible temptress.  There’s a blandness too in the Don José of American import Adam Diegel and, between the two of them, the dialogue (thankfully minimal) is almost incomprehensible due to heavy accents and poor projection. 

The surtitles are a god-send when the vocalising starts and this is singing that nobody’s likely to go far to hear, although both principals have fine moments, not least in the gripping final scene.  Vocal honours go to Elizabeth Llewellyn as a superb Micaela, which avoids any sense of mawkishness, while Leigh Melrose’s Escamillo is a variation of his Ned Keene spiv (great for Britten, not quite so good for Bizet).  He struggles a little with the lowest notes and doesn’t quite convince us as to why a bunch of hairy-arsed squaddies would go weak at the knees for him.

What the production has, and what makes this the most stimulating evening of opera this season, is a coherence and dramatic integrity that has maybe never been seen in Carmen before.  It doesn't completely avoid theatrical cliché – when will opera directors realise that throwing furniture is not a valid indicator of strong feeling? – but it has so much dramatic dynamic that the work is raised higher than the tawdry tale deserves.  It’s also visually stunning most of the time, with Alfons Flores’s simple sets creating beautiful images, such as the brooding bull that dominates the third act.  Bieito moves his actors around the space with expert precision and a superb eye for detail and the, sometimes surprising, settings add constant freshness and clarity.

It’s unfortunate that cars in opera don't have engines and have to be pushed everywhere by chorus members (another operatic cliché) because when the collection of battered Mercedes (no pun on the name of one of the characters, I’m sure) gather in Act 3, they create a brilliantly unexpected backdrop.  Bieito sets the opera at the time of Franco’s decline in the early 1970s and there’s undoubtedly topical references and deep-seated resonances for the Catalan director that may be lost on a London audience (the significance of the dismantling of the bull, for instance, will be reliant on a programme note for many).

In the pit Ryan Wigglesworth shows himself to be more than just a contemporary music specialist with a lively and generally swift account of this most romantic of scores.   There’s a dewy glow in the whole musical approach but it’s the dramatic quality of the production that will be remembered, unless future runs (which are bound to happen) see more persuasive casting in the lead roles.

- Simon Thomas