My problem with Carmen – any Carmen – is that I saw the remarkable Peter Brook 1983 production which disposed with the chorus and wrang every ounce of drama from a combination of the Meilhac/Halévy libretto and Prosper Mérimée's novella. And, despite director John Bell's background in the theatre, from toting spears for the Royal Shakespeare Company to founding the eponymous Bell Shakespeare Company in Australia, there were certainly times in this new production when, for me, the stage was excessively littered with lounging or dancing, cacophonously pastel-costumed crowds that distracted from my concentration on the opera's psychologically astute central characters.

Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) © Keith Saunders
Clémentine Margaine (Carmen)
© Keith Saunders
Not that the colours weren't a boon to balance Michael Scott-Mitchell's looming, crumbling contemporary Cuban setting that served as public square, pop-up bar, smuggler's warehouse and the empty sun-seared exterior of the bull-ring where the deaths of both bull and woman would come to move their audiences. But with principals of such appropriate chemistry as the French Clémentine Margaine's dark Carmen and Korean/American Yonghoon Lee's slender Don José, supported by such well-directed actor/singers as Natalie Aroyan's girl-next-door Micaëla, Margaret Trubiano's supportive sexpot Mercédès, and Adrian Tamburini's dangerous Lieutenant Zuniga, the stage was peopled with quite enough drama.

For Bell's chosen associations with Strindberg's Dance of Death and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf underlined his emphasis upon the fated couple's joint knowledge that nothing they can do will turn the tsunami that's leading to their deaths. She sings of it as soon as her provocative (Cuban-originating) habanera has distracted him from thoughts of Micaëla and his loving mother. Later, when Michael Honeyman's Cuban-heeled, dapper and entitled Escamillo demands confirmation of Carmen's love as he prepares to fight his bull, her response is the fatal, “May I die if I've ever loved anyone as much as you”. We know she knows she will die, even though she's wearing a surprisingly matronly black outfit.

Opera Australia's production of <i>Carmen</i> © Keith Saunders
Opera Australia's production of Carmen
© Keith Saunders

So, the tempestuous country boy Don José, who's just given Micaëla a serious kiss, is an irresistible challenge in Carmen's world where she's much more accustomed to giving macho men the flick with her acid tongue. But his instinct to acknowledge the call of duty to his mum and to military order stands fatally in the way of the couple actually getting much beyond bed together. Yet each demands more, though it's fate that drives them into an unwanted (selfie-recorded!) marriage. When they kiss and the music stops in that empty square outside the bullring, it's almost possible to imagine that fate will be cheated. But Carmen knows that's unachievable – she wants his all, or nothing.

Yonghoon Lee (Don José) and Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) © Keith Saunders
Yonghoon Lee (Don José) and Clémentine Margaine (Carmen)
© Keith Saunders
Yonghoon Lee may lack a perfect French accent, but he's worked with Bell before as an intense Cavaradossi in the OA's last Tosca. He's better at singing and acting that intensity than in sentimentally suggesting he'll ever really return to his Navarre village to settle and marry the dutiful Micaëla. But the power and pain in his voice as he returns from Navarre, barefoot and unkempt, to demand the impossible is thrilling stuff. And Clémentine Margaine may be the perfect Carmen. Her fleshly willingness to be sexily outrageous or be thrown to the ground while singing darkly and as nasally as only a Frenchwoman could do made one believe that she genuinely is “so in love I could lose my mind”.

On the podium, the regularly visiting Italian, Andrea Molino was so in the moment that his baton and Escamillo's sword seemed interchangeable in Act IV. His pace, though, was often more reflective than the norm, allowing key moments in the drama to explode all the more excitingly. Dance movements were to Kelley Abbey's lively choreography. And flute, oboe and harp solos added musical icing to a responsive pit torta.