Georges Bizet's Carmen has been picked at, packaged and popularised in many ways since its 1875 Paris première at the Opéra-Comique. It could be said that for those having never ventured into the opera theatre, yet keen to explore, Carmen embodies a positive first response. In this way, it’s an easy choice for attracting new audiences but, without becoming nonchalant, opera companies need to equally excite and inform the seasoned opera-goer. This production, a collaboration with Il Teatro Municipal di Santiago and first seen in 2009, satisfies with a safe, beautiful and fluidly staged interpretation, very easy on the eye and pleasing to the ear. But the story of Carmen requires something special and portraying her doesn't come easy. The ingredients existed but given the beautiful production, they didn’t quite combine to make for an outstanding performance.

Act I <i>Carmen</i> © Francesco Squeglia
Act I Carmen
© Francesco Squeglia

Director Emilio Sagi brought to Carmen a hint of historical freshness, shifting the original early 19th century southern Spanish setting to the second quarter of the 20th century, creating a sense of place workout fuss and cliché. Thoughtful character placement and a keen eye for detail contributed in building visual interest and a palpable harmony with Daniel Bianco's imposing but subtle set design. A proscenium-like brick portal, incorporating four weathered, timber-panelled gates in the foreground, both framed and divided the stage in two major parts. Behind, a rocky landscape gently rose to a full-height, three-arched sandy-salmon brick viaduct which traversed the rear stage. The ensemble was cleverly adapted for varying effects and a sense of shifting time and place was masterfully struck, assisted by Eduardo Bravo’s soft, sultry lighting.

Costumes by Renata Schussheim dressed the period with painterly skill. Creamy whites, muted tangerine, salmon, peach and fawn dominated the colour palette for the costumes required for the numerous chorus roles. The soloists were a little more problematic. Four costume changes attempting to bring Carmen to life did more to confuse her identity. Micaëla looked more matronly than demure and Escamillo appeared respectable and sharp but not muscularly dazzling.

Act III <i>Carmen</i> © Luciano Romano
Act III Carmen
© Luciano Romano

Musically, conductor, Emmanuel Villaume, embraced Bizet's score rather more lovingly than passionately. The pace was comfortable and Villaume administered both tenderness and liveliness when it counted but was seemingly apprehensive in pumping out boisterous, gutsy fire. The short, sweet musical Entr'acte to Act III demonstrated the best of the Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera with a lightweight, musical glow and the brass players were especially noteworthy for their meticulous support throughout.

For this performance, as Carmen, Clémentine Margaine appeared disconcertingly choreographed, not altogether exemplifying the free-spirited, feisty, jealous and rebellious tobacco factory worker come smuggler. Like her costuming, her character lacked grit, and an unsavoury meekness slipped in, which felt out of sorts. It all made Carmen hardly seem the centre of attention the role demands. Vocally, Margaine certainly impressed with range and tonal flair, particularly strong in the middle range but her performance seemed laboured, displaying a tendency to gasp between phrases and ending them jerkily. It was only in the final scene as Carmen meets her doom that the voice bonded with the gravitas of her performance in the seesawing portrayal of Don José's 'Will I or won't I murder her?' scene, as he plunges into irrevocable rage and Carmen to her death.

Dmytro Popov was compelling both theatrically and vocally as Don José, the swooning, unstable “lowly” soldier swept up into Carmen’s seductive power. Popov’s dexterous and resonant tenor voice, spiced with a luscious, oscillating vibrato and high throaty warble, was charisma itself. Act II”s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” signalled the turning point of Don José’s convictions and with it Popov’s star quality.

As the bullfighter, Escamillo, Kyle Ketelson pranced half alluringly, half mechanically in claiming Carmen's heart and riling Don José in the process. Escamillo’s famous Act II entrance aria, “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre”, comes with much pressure and Ketelson delivered in a voice of towering strength and sure-footed technique to rapturous applause.

Micaëla, the innocent young woman who opens her heart to Don José and bravely attempts to steer him into respectability, was invented to elevate the plot morally and here it worked inventively. In Act I, the encounter between Micaëla and Don José, watched over by Carmen's jealous eyes, poignantly dramatized the counterpoint and tension. Eleonora Buratto, as Micaëla, opened with a startling rendition of "Votre mère avec moi sortait de la chapelle", maintaining strength and composure, delivering a nuanced performance that matched a voice bejewelled with purity and grace, overlaid on a broad vocal range.

While aptly looking and enacting the part of soldiers, cigarette factory girls, gypsies, merchants and bullfighters, the Coro del Teatro dell'Opera, seemingly worked their own vocal agenda, struggling to unify in voice and straying from Villaume’s command. Stealing their limelight, the children's chorus shone, displaying unimpeded confidence, an excitable sweetness in voice and clearly having fun all the while. Energetic dancers, neatly-choreographed by Nuria Castejón, worked their Spanish charm to marvellous effect, adding entertainment value to match Bizet's musical intent without hindering or trivialising the drama.

This performance was a little short on passion but the production certainly has the appeal to impress both new and seasoned opera-goers alike, and deserves to be revived in the near future.