Familiarity breeds contempt, the proverb tells us. In the case of Bizet's Carmen, it’s not so much contempt as intolerance: the music is so accessible, the melodies are so often heard and the opera so often performed that to succeed, a production must either be perfectly executed or furnished with something special to lift the interest. The latest revival of Francesca Zambello’s production at Covent Garden is neither of those things – attractive and generally competent though it is.

Nicole Car as Micaëla © Catherine Ashmore
Nicole Car as Micaëla
© Catherine Ashmore
Two of the principal cast members were more than just competent. In her Royal Opera début, Australian soprano Nicole Car made a great first impression as a feisty, earnest Micaëla, with just the right combination of brightness and sweetness in the voice, well judged phrasing and no apparent sign of débutante nerves.   Bryan Hymel is an excellent Don José: he has vast reserves of power in the voice which enable him to throw his voice at the role and get a lot of expressivity without ever losing control over precise timing or intonation. He was also the only one of our quartet of main singers to produce clear French diction.

Alexander Vinogradov has a pleasant, smooth basso cantante voice which resulted in a rather smooth, urbane Escamillo. I like the voice, but I’m not convinced that he’s right for the part: the tessitura is right at the top of his range, and I prefer an Escamillo to be a bit rougher: the man is a bullfighter capable of holding his own in a knife fight, not an aristocrat.

Bryan Hymel as Don José, Elena Maximova as Carmen
Bryan Hymel as Don José, Elena Maximova as Carmen
In the title role, Elena Maximova disappointed. She has the looks and moves for the part, power to burn and the right sort of dark colour in the voice. But a thick accent was allied to awful diction, with hardly a consonant  intelligible all evening. I spent the evening struggling to work out the words from a combination of memory and back-translation of the surtitles, and that kills any possibility of being swept away by siren-like sexuality, which is required to make the whole opera plausible.

Just like the singing, the orchestral performance was mixed. Bertrand de Billy kept things moving nicely and strings and woodwind gave good, precise performances: the prelude to Act III, when they’re playing on their own, was the orchestral highlight of the evening. But there were simply too many errors and hesitancies in brass and percussion: this is a score where anything less than immaculate timing of triangle or tambourine notes can throw the whole flow of the music. The result was an orchestral performance that was adequate without ever touching greatness.

Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo © Catherine Ashmore
Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo
© Catherine Ashmore
Zambello’s staging is appealing: her take on 19th century Seville is well lit and bustling, very much one’s ideal of a Hispanic city in the burning sun gathered from Zorro movies or elsewhere. But it gives a lot of rope on which a revival director can hang himself: there is a huge amount of movement on stage and it all needs to be executed crisply. Under the revival direction of Duncan Macfarland and choreography of Sirena Tocco, last night’s cast and chorus were good enough to execute it all correctly, but not good enough to give the sense of doing so with abandon. The defining example was extras abseiling down the walls, who landed with care rather than with a thump and a flourish; the exception was the Royal Opera Youth Company, with the children throwing themselves into the action with delightful abandon and brio.

For anyone seeing Carmen for the first time, this production will have been a more than satisfactory evening. Old hands hoping to see something extra will find it in Hymel and Car, but not elsewhere.