“The very incarnation of vice” was how one critic described Célestine Galli-Marié’s Carmen at the opera’s 1875 Opéra Comique première. That description could equally be applied to Stéphanie d’Oustrac in Glyndebourne’s revival of David McVicar’s terrific production. Sultry, fiery, coquettish: a mezzo singing Carmen needs to have all these qualities and d’Oustrac scored on each and every point. From her teasing, orange-peeling habanera to her haughty tossing away of Don José’s ring in the finale, this was a compelling reading of the role.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Carmen) © Robert Workman
Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Carmen)
© Robert Workman

Vocally, d’Oustrac was also terrific. Hers is not a huge voice, yet she didn’t force her singing… and nor did she need to in a house this size, so close in capacity to the Opéra Comique itself. In the opening acts, d’Oustrac’s Carmen mesmerised and beguiled, whether gently pulling against the habanera’s pulse, or her defiant taunting of Zuniga. Her portrayal was shot through with comic deftness, but there was dark intensity too: a devastating Card Scene and a crackling final confrontation with José. Her superb French diction understandably outshone her colleagues’ by some distance.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Carmen) © Robert Workman
Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Carmen)
© Robert Workman

McVicar’s production, subtly updated to the period of composition, avoids cliché almost as much as Calixto Bieito’s currently showing at ENO, yet it demonstrates that a largely traditional staging can still be gritty and grimy. Squalid courtyard barracks are fenced off from antagonistic locals, the girls from the tobacco factory opposite panting and sweating midst much leg-splaying. Paule Constable’s chiaroscuro lighting evokes Lillas Pastia’s seedy inn, the misty mountains of the smugglers’ camp and the dazzling sunlight of Act IV. Here, picture postcard Seville puts in a belated appearance, a glittering fiesta as the toreadors parade to the bullring. The audience at the première was “shocked by the drastic realism of the action” (Ernest Newman). When the ochre wall at the back of Michael Vale’s set is eventually splattered and smeared with Carmen’s blood – it’s just as shocking, even when we knew it was coming.

David Soar (Escamillo) and Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Carmen) © Robert Workman
David Soar (Escamillo) and Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Carmen)
© Robert Workman

I’ve never seen a production of Carmen where so much of the dialogue is retained. It adds greatly to our understanding of the back story to various characters, particularly Don José. It was also good to hear the full version of the José—Escamillo duel, where the bullfighter initially outfoxes José, but lets him off. McVicar’s production, revived here by Marie Lambert, scores with a number of detailed touches. Escamillo already has a ‘significant other’ in Act II, furious at his outrageous flirting, while during the Toreador’s Song, Carmen has to fend off the attentions of the persistent Zuniga. Humour is very present. Loïc Félix’s Le Remendado is a wonderfully comic foil to Christophe Gay's Le Dancaïre, while Simon Lim’s Zuniga is left tied to his chair in front of the drop curtain, staring searchingly into the auditorium as the long interval commences.

Pavel Černoch’s Don José was a mixed blessing. He presents a thoroughly decent, wet-behind-the-ears corporal (although the character from Mérimée’s novella had already killed a man, his reason for running away to Seville and the army). His jealousy and his mother’s death turn him into a pathetic figure in Act IV. Černoch suffered several intonation problems on opening night, not least in the duet with Micaëla, and he inexplicably failed to have any great stage chemistry with d’Oustrac’s sizzling Carmen.

Pavel Cernoch (Don José) and Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Carmen) © Robert Workman
Pavel Cernoch (Don José) and Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Carmen)
© Robert Workman

Lucy Crowe’s Micaëla glowed, notwithstanding some cloudy low notes which stretched her in “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”. Other than d’Oustrac, the other standout was David Soar’s excellent Escamillo, bass notes secure, charisma set to full-swagger. At the other end of the vocal scale, Eliana Pretorian impressed with her lively Frasquita.

Jakub Hrůša led a fiery, passionate account of Bizet’s score, dripping with drama. The way the Danse bohème in Act II started at such a seductive, slow tempo and steadily increased in both pace and volume was hypnotic. This followed a characterful rendition of the prelude, based on José’s “Les Dragons d’Alcala” song, featuring superb bassoon and clarinet contributions. Throughout the evening, the London Philharmonic Orchestra impressed at every turn, matched by the fine chorus, particularly the children.

I cannot imagine many better productions of Bizet’s opera than McVicar’s and if I ever hear a Carmen as seductive as Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s again, I’ll be a very lucky man indeed.