Opera: Carmen pleasures

The tale of a cigarette worker and a promising soldier who throws his career away in lusting after her seems like an unlikely premise for an opera. But Bizet's rousing music and the melodramatic tale of love and obsession woven around it make Carmen hard to resist. The casting and current production make for a satisfying night out at the Royal Opera.

I caught this production just before Christmas with the alternative cast. Korean tenor Younghoon Lee as Don José delivers a thrilling performance with his range and gradually escalating dramatic intensity. By the finale the audiences were cheering. 

Christine Rice as Carmen was equally thrilling and has a dark timbre and luscious sound that is well suited to the role. The rest of the cast rise to the drama of the occasion. As Escamillo, the Johnny Depp of opera Kostas Smoriginas, dominates his scenes with a commanding voice and presence. 

Francesca Zambello's stylish production evokes Seville but what lingers even more is the sensuality that pervades throughout the piece. From the moment Carmen emerges from the cigarette factory - smoking - it looks so seductive and makes smoking seem so appealing you are bound to bemoan that raging storms and new safety rules ban a quick smoke from the upper terraces during the interval.

All this sensuality works for the most part, although there is one scene where it is a bit suspect... Don José, while trying to resist Carmen, ends up singing up her dress while she is splayed out in front of him as if it is some operatic gynaecological examination. So the production may not be for all tastes. 

The orchestra, conducted by Daniel Oren, gallops through the music, but at this speed the resistance to the drama and luscious sound is futile. And it is probably the best way to appreciate the piece, which still runs at over three hours.

The run is sold out but you can queue for day returns for the remaining four performances. It concludes on 9 January.

Photo credit: ROH production photo with  Anna Caterina Antonacci as Carmen and many tambourines

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