She’s been around for some 150 years, which in operatic terms is not an eternity, and yet almost from her first appearance she’s been one of that genre’s big draws. Right from the start the talk has always been about the character herself. A Jezebel? An unscrupulous young hussy, demonic and witch-like? The classic femme fatale? Or a vulnerable and complex individual trapped in a world of misogyny and prejudice? Carmen herself will keep the speculation going for many more years.

Ida Aldrian (Mercédès), Maria Kataeva (Carmen) and Katrina Galka (Frasquita)
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

This latest Carmen, directed by Herbert Fritsch, who also designed the sets, and conducted by Yoel Gamzou, opened the new Staatsoper Hamburg season. Every such production stands and falls with the casting of the main character herself. Maria Kataeva commands attention from the beginning, both vocally and visually. Her instrument is fresh-toned and flexible in tonal shading, with a chocolate-coated richness in her lower mezzo range heard to particular advantage in the Seguidilla as well as the Lillas Pastia and Card scenes where the music descends into darker depths. If at times a degree of sensuousness was missing, as in the Habanera where I wanted her to savour the words a little more, this was indeed a rebellious bird who had no intention of ever hanging around for long.

Kataeva is one of the most feline Carmens I have encountered: she slinks cat-like over the stage, hisses at the other cigarette girls in her “Tralalalala” interaction with Zuniga, extends her arms to reveal sharp claws, strokes her breast with soft paws, goes down on her haunches for use as a launch-pad, and has all the smirks and snarls designed to ward predators off. In an instant she can turn from an air of nonchalance and feigned boredom to a mood of icy hauteur, stamping her feet imperiously. This is not a woman you want to mess with.

Elbenita Kajtazi (Micaëla) and Blake Denson (Moralès)
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Micaëla was wonderfully cast in Elbenita Kajtazi, looking in her powder-blue lace with matching parasol like a renegade from Madama Butterfly. Or indeed like a ballerina figurine gracing the top of a music-box. Her silvery-toned chasteness was apparent in her early exchanges with Don José about his mother, but the extent of her steadfast feelings for him emerged quite fervently in her Act 3 aria and recitative.

Escamillo proved to be something of a Freddie Mercury lookalike, the inky-black baritone of Kostas Smoriginas together with the cool blues of his outfit and kohl-reinforced make-up giving him something of a devilish mien. His Toreador’s Song was delivered with more than a hint of menace, enough to cow into submission any approaching bull or indeed rivals threatening his own pre-eminence.

Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo) and Maria Kataeva (Carmen)
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

It was the Don José of Tomislav Mužek who slightly disappointed. The role was evenly sung, albeit with initial touches of nasal thinness, but it was not until his final Act 3 exchanges with Carmen that I had much sense of a heart beating with passion. Could this man really be so besotted with a cigarette girl, after a Flower Song little more than a prosaic declaration of love?  He never seemed quite sure of himself, frequently assuming a forlorn, little-boy-lost demeanour. In fact, when towards the end of Act 2 Carmen accuses him of being as yellow as his tunic, chiding him for being “mon garçon”, she’s not wide of the mark. There was more than a suggestion that he might be a proper mother’s boy in the lyrical warmth he reserved for his Act 1 duet with Micaëla.

Maria Kataeva (Carmen) and Tomislav Mužek (Don José)
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The costumes designed by José Luna were amongst the most dazzling I have ever seen. From the scarlet and gold uniforms of the soldiers through the bright primary colours in which the folk of Seville were clad to the harlequin attire of Act 3, and not least the sparkling golden gown complete with train and high mantilla of Carmen herself, this was a feast for the eyes.

In the pit there was both an excitable and an excitatory Gamzou. Some of his tempi were hair-raisingly breathless, and occasionally I felt he was pushing his singers along a little forcefully. However, Andalucía is a world in which passions are easily aroused and quickly spill over, so strong and urgent feelings were not entirely out of place. What was evident in addition to the dramatic urgency and sheer excitement he found in the score were the many moments of orchestral delicacy in which his players sounded authentically French.

Tomislav Mužek (Don José) and Maria Kataeva (Carmen)
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Many have seen in Bizet’s masterpiece an early exponent of verismo. Fritsch, however, places his Carmen in the tradition of the opéra comique, with much slapstick, slightly camped-up dancing and elements of pantomime and grotesquerie, the storytelling never sidetracked by dubious and unnecessary elements of symbolism or Regietheater. Despite its occasional weaknesses, this was a thoroughly entertaining conception of a love triangle always doomed to end badly.