In an opera of such popularity as Carmen by Georges Bizet, it wouldn’t be easy to please an audience likely to be inured to a variety of performances of arias such as Habanera and The Toreador’s Song. Yet Opera Australia made a thoughtfully constructed and well vindicated attempt.

It is well accepted that the role of Carmen has to be quite outstanding for any production of the opera to be successful. Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham is every inch the sensuous, taunting, manipulative vixen she has to be. Her voice is tenacious, her tone exudes Latin passion, her phrasing is expressive and her writhing choreography finely chisels her mercurial gypsy character that pervades the entire production.

In sharp contrast to the fickle and vituperative Carmen, the purity of heart and rustic innocence embodied in Micaëla provide a soothing overlay to what is otherwise a harsh and brutal story. Nicole Car’s portrayal of this piteous antipathy to Carmen in the solo in Act III is easily the moving tear-jerker in the entire performance.

Richard Troxell has a fine tenor voice that does not tear into the high notes with vehemence. His performance as the somewhat faint-hearted and susceptible Don José is very credible and quite rightly exasperating.

Shane Lowrencev, tall and slim, cuts a dashing figure as Escamillo, the opportunistic and vain torero that eventually captures Carmen’s heart and causes Don José’s downfall. His voice is less robust than it needs to be, and therefore carries with it less of the virility that the part requires, at times drowned by the unobtrusive orchestral accompaniment. Yet visually his height effectively towers over the diminutive Don José – quite a clever stroke of casting.

Under the direction of Guillaume Tourniaire, the orchestra puts up a fine performance, in various places accentuating Bizet’s skill as an orchestral composer. The elegant interplay between flute and harp that opens Act III is refreshing and delightful, providing an apt suggestion of Micaëla’s solo a few moments later.

The costumes and set deserve some mention as well. The simple but solid backdrop provides vital and very flexible support to the changes in mood and ambience of the four acts. The garish, gold-plated costume of the bull-fighters in the last act, accompanied by a richly decorated cart of flowers, brings the show to a dazzling conclusion.

I suspect that even the most Carmen-weary audience would have been totally satisfied with Opera Australia’s production.