For this revival of Francesca Zambello's lavish production of Carmen, the Royal Opera have imported two leads who just a few weeks ago were performing the same roles in New York's Metropolitan Opera. Spanish-raised mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Covent Garden regular Marcelo Álvarez are certainly comfortable enough on stage together and have all the Hispanic blood coursing through their veins that one could want. For much of the evening, though, the drama produced considerable heat but failed to fully ignite.
Part of the blame must lie with the conducting. Daniel Oren and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House produced an account of the score that failed to hint fully at the violence latent in the drama as it progresses. Up to the denouement, we could enjoy the delights of Bizet's melodic invention but the moments of passion sometimes came across more as aberrations than essential milestones along the path to Carmen's destruction.
Things were not helped either for the first night audience by the unfortunate fact that Álvarez was singing through a cold. However, although this seemed to hamper his legato singing a little, he still gave an impassioned account of his aria and produced some thrilling sounds; there was no sense of him holding back as he unleashed an impressive array of top notes, seemingly unaffected by his condition. Granted, there was rarely much in the way of French style and his pronunciation remains a little eccentric, but his performance convinced through the commitment of his singing alone.
Opposite him, Herrera's Carmen was never less than finely sung and acted. Her seduction of Don José, in particular, was executed with calculated and ruthless precision. The voice is smooth and well-produced across the range, but despite some tantalising hints of darker colour down below and a few top notes unleashed with abandon, there was a feeling that she was slightly holding back. The physical demands, though, were met with an ease and naturalness that eludes others: she danced seductively and had no problems conjuring up the hip-swaying walk and flashing looks that are an essential part of any Carmen's arsenal. Despite all this, and the natural advantage of her Mediterranean looks, she remained convincing in the role rather than truly compelling, often giving little hint of reciprocating Don José's passion for her. Álvarez is more comfortable in the overtly emotional parts of his role and against her coolness some of his acting came across as a little hammy in the first three acts, even if this translated into passionate drama in the final scene.
The rest of the cast was headed by Susan Gritton's sweetly sung Micaëla and Kyle Ketelsen's strutting Escamillo. It's difficult to make much of the role of Micaëla and Gritton was content to let the character's music do the talking, delivering her lines in the First Act duet with Don José cleanly and providing a touching rendition of her Third Act aria. Existing primarily as a foil to Carmen's more dangerous charms, Gritton did well to portray the character's innate goodness without letting her descend into a saccharine caricature.
After a slightly underwhelming entrance aria where the voice just seemed a size too small for what he was trying to do with it, Ketelsen warmed up, embodying the suave, carefree bullfighter with evident relish. I missed, though, a real sense of dangerous sensuality in the voice and physical menace in his acting. Of the smaller parts, Elana Xanthoudakis stood out as an unusually well-sung Frasquita and Jette Parker Young Artist Jacques Imbrailo was a stylish Moralés, adding to his reputation as a singer to watch.
Despite some excellent work from individual members of the orchestra – the beautifully played flute solo that opens the Third Act and the important work from the cor anglais, for example – they only occasionally achieved the sparkle or fizz that Bizet's score demands. Early on, too many of the score's details were skated over in the name of forward momentum, several of the portentous ideas Bizet introduces to break up the melodies before the total disintegration of the final act failed to register. The Royal Opera Chorus, though, embodying a variety of roles, were excellent throughout.
Francesca Zambello's production, now a couple of years old, remains an impressive spectacle but is still, at times, disconcertingly busy. The presence of several extras on stage, so obviously eavesdropping, makes a mockery of the secrecy employed as Carmen explains how Don José is to let her escape, for example. Packing the stage with noisy dancers throughout the gypsy song that opens the Second Act undoubtedly helped to bring the number to a nicely frenzied climax but meant also that the sultry, delicately scored opening was all but inaudible. The same problem plagued the 'Quant au douanier' ensemble in Act Three as dancers drew the attention away from Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès. The abseiling smugglers in the same act struck me as superfluous and the donkey and horse were trotted on dutifully maybe just a couple of times too often, as the production seemed worried that the audience's attention to the opera itself might flag. There remains, too, a slightly worrying aesthetic discrepancy between the plain, sun-drenched minimalism of the sets and the painstaking realism of the costumes.
However, some of the scenes are extremely well executed. The bustling town-square as the curtain opens is beautifully evoked and the excellent children's chorus performed magnificently and their natural exuberance added a delightful feeling of potential chaos to their carefully choreographed routine. The opening of the final act is also a wonderful piece of theatre, helping to give extra power to the contrast between public spectacle of the bull-fight, hidden from view, and the private and sordid final encounter between Carmen and Don José, played out before us.
Overall, then, this is still a very enjoyable Carmen. With a cast that's likely to improve throughout the run as Álvarez shakes off his cold, it provides a lavishly entertaining evening in the theatre and ultimately packs just the emotional punch that it should.
By Hugo Shirley