In opera, when your leading lady goes sick 24 hours before curtain up, it’s usual to fly in a substitute, but Barrie Kosky’s much-lambasted production of Carmen for the Royal Opera, first seen in February this year, is so intricately directed and choreographed that dropping in just any star isn’t an option. Thank goodness, then, that the French mezzo Gaëlle Arquez was available when Ksenia Dudnikova fell ill. Arquez had sung Carmen in the second cast earlier this year and knew Kosky’s song-and-dance show inside out. All would have been lost otherwise. Perhaps Theresa May can explain to casting directors how this will work in future after Brexit ends freedom of movement...

Gaëlle Arquez (Carmen) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Gaëlle Arquez (Carmen)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Some might even have welcomed a forced cancellation of the first night of this revival, such was the scorn poured on it in February, but they would be wrong. Their grumbles have been heeded and this is now a much slicker show, still irritating in its frantic choreography and still stuck with its monumentally boring set, but now much more cohesive and coherent. Some of Bizet’s rarely-played original music, reintroduced in February, has gone; the extended Habanera and finale are still there but not the comic ditties that so slowed the action first time round. The contentious recorded narration that replaces the dialogue seems to have been trimmed back. And with debutante Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson driving the tempi hard (her baton flew out of her hand after just a few bars, such was her determination to get the show moving) momentum is never in question.

But with nothing but one enormous flight of steps to distract the eye, all the onus is thrown on to the singers and dancers, and here things start to unravel. Sixteen huge steps climb high above the stage. Virtually ever entrance and exit is made over this Himalaya. You could feel the audience tense, just waiting for someone to take a tumble as principals and (splendid) chorus poured up and down this vertiginous slope. Constant nervous anxiety does not make for a great night out.

<i>Carmen</i> Dancers © ROH | Bill Cooper
Carmen Dancers
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Kosky and choreographer Otto Pichler fill this stairway to the stars with references to cinema and Broadway: a sort of Bob Fosse meets vaudeville style informs the dancing, matched by designer Katrin Lea Tag’s 1920s black and grey aesthetic. It’s hectic nearly all the time, and often to no discernable purpose… until the final flip twist (which I won’t spoil here) makes us reassess the purpose of the whole evening (and, indeed, the whole purpose of drama).

Into all this steps Arquez’s supremely cool and calculating Carmen. She may not possess the largest of voices and she had some early intonation problems on first night, but she sings with supreme confidence and inhabits the role completely. She looks magnificently cat-like as she schemes her way into (and out of) Don José’s heart, always in command. Everything is on her terms.

Eleonora Buratto (Micaëla) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Eleonora Buratto (Micaëla)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Her Don José (Brian Jagde) rarely rises to her level in his uninspiring performance but Alexander Vinogradov as his rival in love Escamillo, does a great turn, more like a granite-voiced cinema crooner, completely aware of his own absurdity. And discovery of the night was Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto, making her Royal Opera debut as a winning, nightingale-toned Micaëla.

There was good support from Haegee Lee as Frasquita and Aigul Akhmetshina as Mércedes – both dancing their socks off, alongside Arquez and the six, sadly uncredited, professional dancers, who work the hardest of any in this huge cast.

***11