Barrie Kosky’s Carmen is back, so grab the pedometer. “Who needs cardio classes?” tweeted the Royal Opera Chorus wryly after Saturday’s matinee. Kosky strips almost all sense of Spain from the setting and presents us instead with a steep staircase on which nearly all the action – up, down, across, up again – takes place. A head for heights and hamstrings of steel are prerequisites. This is Carmen as cabaret, as vaudeville. It splits audiences and critics but by now anyone after a ticket knows that, apart from a few colourful matador costumes, they’re not getting picture postcard Seville.

Luca Pisaroni (Escamillo) and chorus © ROH | Bill Cooper
Luca Pisaroni (Escamillo) and chorus
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Instead, Kosky peppers the score with plenty of movement in Otto Pichler’s zany choreography – hand jives, flamenco, charleston, slapstick – led by a troupe of professional dancers. He plays around with Bizet too, including both versions of the habanera. He cuts all the original dialogue and Ernest Guirard’s recitatives, replacing them with a laconic voiceover (Claude de Demo) that very much narrates the story from Carmen’s perspective, as opposed to Prosper Merimée’s novella where the imprisoned José Lizarrabengoa does most of the telling.

It’s a high risk strategy for a house to have such a radical, divisive staging of an operatic staple – there were swathes of empty seats last night – but I confess it’s a production I adore, in thrall to its sheer exuberance and energy. However, Kosky’s production stands or falls by having singers who completely buy into his concept. And in this revival, directed by Julia Burbach, it fell flat on its backside.

Jacquelyn Stucker (Frasquita), Anaïk Morel (Carmen), Hongni Wu (Mercédès) and dancers © ROH | Bill Cooper
Jacquelyn Stucker (Frasquita), Anaïk Morel (Carmen), Hongni Wu (Mercédès) and dancers
© ROH | Bill Cooper

There were some positives. Good on the chorus for once again entering into the spirit so gamely, scaling the steps whilst singing their hearts out. Ailyn Pérez, inexplicably absent from Covent Garden for five years, was a fabulous Micaëla, singing a heartfelt “Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante”, rich in tone, the highlight of the evening. Jacquelyn Stucker gave plenty of pep to the role of Frasquita. But where was the energy elsewhere? Where was the zing? Julia Jones’ polite conducting failed to draw much fire or to ratchet up the tension.

Bryan Hymel’s Don José had the look of a condemned man from the moment he cracked his opening phrase. Understandably tentative, he sounded out of sorts, getting through the Flower Song by willpower alone. Some of his top notes rang out thrillingly later on, but this is not the Hymel who’s wowed the house in Troyens, Vêpres siciliennes or Cavalleria rusticana. Here’s hoping for a swift recovery of form.

Bryan Hymel (Don José) and Ailyn Pérez (Micaëla) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Bryan Hymel (Don José) and Ailyn Pérez (Micaëla)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Making his role debut, Luca Pisaroni’s Escamillo lacked machismo, impeded by hollow bottom notes and a distinct wobble at the top, although he looks dashing enough.

But what of Carmen herself? She can be played in many ways. Anna Goryachova gave us a lighter-voiced, impish minx. Gaëlle Arquez gave us something darker, deeper, sexier. Aigul Akhmetshina combined sultry with playful in her December jump-in (she sings three performances in this run). But Anaïk Morel had little to offer. Her medium-weight mezzo, slightly grainy, failed to seduce, nor was there any charisma. The Chanson bohème came off nicely, but there was zero chemistry with her Don José. At the end, when Carmen rises from the dead and gives a provocative “So what?” shrug to the audience, Morel’s left hand got caught in her dress. It summed up the evening.

**111