Paula Murrihy is no Latina. Pale skin and ginger hair give her an air of coolness, and yet hardly anybody can seduce and wrap the audience around her little finger like she can. Her role debut as Carmen at Oper Frankfurt cannot have left anyone cold.

Barrie Kosky has reduced the piece to a series of tableaux that make extreme emotions easily recognisable for every listener. This is supported by the fact that Kosky and conductor Constantinos Carydis have heavily revised the Frankfurt version of Bizet’s Carmen, reducing it to the bare essentials. A charming offstage narrator (Claude De Demo) guided the transition of the action between scenes.

Authenticity in a performance is always palpable when soloists empathise with their characters and clearly enjoy playing them. This evening every singer seemed wrapped up in their roles. As the two gypsies, hooting and cheering and dancing around Carmen, Kateryna Kasper and Elizabeth Reiter created the atmosphere, perhaps paying just a little too much tribute to an over-proud Carmen. Reiter and Kasper warbled and sang, and together with Murrihy’s Carmen they made for a fulminating trio whose voices blended in well with one another. They dominated the stage with raging dances, all the while radiating the very same coolness that surrounds Carmen, without slipping into an overly kitschy performance. It was especially this that made a breeze of fresh air billow the Latino dresses. First, Carmen wears a pair of modern, tight trousers and wide, white blouse, then a cordon-embellished 1920s dress and finally a black ball gown with fateful train. She constantly reinvents herself: Latinos, gypsies, Hispanics – those are the others.

Joseph Calleja, who as Don José was to fall in love with the at times chic, at times vulgar Carmen, wasn’t given such a telling costume, but produced an appealing and empathetic sound and showed character development in portrayal and voice that confirmed his reputation: clear, bright and flattering, he breathed his love of Carmen in the first acts, whereas towards the end, corrupted by jealousy, he adopted a typically thunderous tone. Karen Vuong also embodied her role with plenty of energy. As the young and pious Micaëla in the service of Don José's dying mother, she tried to lure him back to the “light”, honourable side with a tender, girlish voice. Despite Vuong’s convincing acting and a vocal performance in which her voice was always light and carried easily, even with her back to the audience, Don José could no longer succumb to her charms.

Paula Murrihy’s presence as Carmen left nobody untouched, be it on stage or in the auditorium. The fascinating element in her performance was the ambivalence that is inherent in the role and which she brought to the fore when she sang of the rebellious nature of love in one moment, underlining it with a vulgarity of tone in the next. This never slipped into gaudy Kitsch, however, but she managed to always retain an artless air. Only rarely did she indulge in pure lyricism, rather, she reined in her usual free singing voice, preferring to use a controlled voice with the inflection of ordinary speech.

In doing so, her performance wasn’t evocative of a typical coloratura role. Rather, she showed a new, subtly seductive Carmen, who doesn’t want to beguile men blatantly, but who casts her spell with discreet charm. In the role of bullfighter Escamillo, Daniel Schmutzhard fell for said charm with gusto, depicting a macho and cheesy, confident lover. He got to try out the classic, Spanish toreador costumes, which – along with the vain bullfighter dancers – framed one of the few moments of true hispanophilia.

Despite the cuts and edits, this new version worked well and proved to be well-balanced. Carydis had complete control over his orchestra and spurred it on to dynamic eruptions, particularly in the March and the Gypsy Song, and yet he found access to the quieter moods with great sensitivity. The choir and children’s choir not only convinced with their singing, but also with agile stage presence, which wasn’t an easy feat on the stepped, sparse stage. Otto Pichler’s choreography was the final element that, to great extent, lent the piece its cunning wit, in which there was much more to see than just a toreador dancing subtle jazz.

Translated from German by Hedy Muehleck.