Carmen was the first foreign-language opera ever performed at the National Theatre, in 1884, three years after it opened. There have been eleven different productions and multi-year runs of the opera in Prague since, and to judge by the generous photo recap in the program book, the latest is the most austere. It’s also bloodless, drained of the fiery passion that has made Carmen a timeless classic. This one is like a generic version of the opera, recognizable but hollow.

Nana Dzidziguri (Carmen)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Luigi Perego's sole set is a series of ascending slabs, essentially a large, curving stairway made for moving large numbers of people on and off the stage, which it does very efficiently. There’s not much in the way of atmospherics – a sad Spanish flag hovering over the first two acts, and a few faux rocks in the third and fourth, when a background finally emerges. Stage sets can be minimal and still effective, but this one borders on abstract, which is not a good match with the material. Characters move around in a void, like pieces on a chessboard.

Luis Gomes (Don José) and Jaroslav Patočka (Zuniga)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Movement is veteran director Grischa Asagaroff’s strength, in both the flow of crowds and the bits of byplay augmenting large-scale scenes. Yet even that falters at times, like the habanera, which is surprisingly static. And the choreography is stiff, mostly a study in how to strike statuesque poses. The uneven pacing robs the opera of the momentum it needs to build to the dramatic impact of someone suddenly getting a knife in the ribs.

At the premiere, a solid cast kept the action afloat. Nana Dzidziguri took some time to settle into the title role, vamping her way through the first half and occasionally breaking the fourth wall with a sly wink to the audience, as if to say, you know what comes next. After intermission she was convincingly immersed in the character, and a trouper for taking the physical abuse dished out by Luis Gomes as Don José. Gomes lacks the swagger of a volatile, dangerous lover, but his warm tenor made for some affecting romantic moments. National Theatre company members turned in some of the strongest performances, in particular Kateřina Kněžíková (Micaëla), who stole the show with a lustrous “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” in the third act. And Yukiko Kinjo and Stanislava Jirků sparkled in their roles as Frasquita and Mercédès, respectively.

Łukasz Golinski (Escamillio) and Luis Gomes (Don José)
© Zdeněk Sokol

The real star of the evening was Petr Popelka, a Czech conductor not seen in Prague much because he has been so successful abroad. A former double bass player with the Staatskapelle Dresden, part-time composer and currently chief conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Popelka brought an animated, expressive style to the pit that lit up the score, providing much of the electricity missing onstage. The music sounded remarkably fresh, no small accomplishment with such familiar fare. And the orchestra was outstanding, playing with vivid color and fine clarity. (Czech audiences will see a lot more of Popelka when he becomes chief conductor and artistic director of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra next season.)

Łukasz Golinski (Escamillio) and Nana Dzidziguri (Carmen)
© Zdeněk Sokol

The premiere also featured some impressive choral work. Whenever the opera seemed on the verge of floundering, the National Theatre Chorus kicked it back to life with another richly hued blast tailored for the Broadway-style production numbers that Asagaroff favors. And the Prague Philharmonic Children’s Choir made more than a token appearance, adding enthusiasm and a crackle of anticipation, especially in the build-up to the bullfight in the final act.

In the end, all the fine performances couldn’t lift the production above the mundane. Instead of an exotic story of love and betrayal, this Carmen comes off as a tale of a wayward woman who went looking for trouble and came to a bad end. That’s grand opera. Only sometimes, it isn’t so grand.