The Royal Opera House’s current revival of Carmen delivers exactly what it promises. The overture set the tone for the evening: undeniably classic (in fact, it paradoxically sounded more traditional in its tempi and dynamics than any recording I’ve heard), effortlessly competent, and bursting with infectious energy. As the rest of the playing also proved, conductor Daniel Oren and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House know this music well and enjoy it.

Christine Rice and Yonghoon Lee © Catherine Ashmore / ROH
Christine Rice and Yonghoon Lee
© Catherine Ashmore / ROH

Francesca Zambello’s production dates from 2006 and has been released on DVD, so it’s hardly a new sight. That said, it deserves its longevity. There’s no attention-grabbing directorial concept here; instead, it’s a production in time period with nice doses of flash (sparkly toreador costumes and real animals onstage) and visually striking tableaux (particularly during the opening promenade scene) that is still simple enough to keep the attention on the dramatic action. The blocking is sensitive to the music, though in this particular revival the timing seemed a bit under-rehearsed. (Choir members or extras with bits of stage business sometimes reached their places early and were noticeably waiting for a musical cue.)

Christine Rice © Catherine Ashmore / ROH
Christine Rice
© Catherine Ashmore / ROH
As Carmen, Christine Rice showed off her wonderfully dark yet flexible sound. The smoky timbre of her voice fit the character perfectly, and her vocal agility made the Seguidilla and the tavern dance sound effortless. (Her Habanera, in contrast, could have benefited from cleaner intervals.) “En vain, pour éviter” marked her best singing of the evening, as it allowed her to show off all the power and dark tone of her voice. Acting-wise, she seemed uncomfortable in the first act – the very sexualized blocking didn’t work well for her and made it look like Carmen was working too hard for male attention. She improved in later acts, and her defiance in the final scene was credible and moving.

Younghoon Lee’s Don José matched Carmen vocally and exceeded her theatrically. His wordless acting during the overture as he was led to execution promised a wonderfully physical and intense characterization, and Mr. Lee did not disappoint. Vocally, he commands a gorgeous tenor voice with an astonishing range of tone and dynamics. These were displayed to best effect during his flower aria, which was undoubtedly the musical climax of the evening.

Sarah Fox, who played Micaela, is the quintessential soubrette with clear, light tone and simmering top notes. She seemed unsure how to balance shyness and flirtatiousness in her initial encounter with the soldiers. Her interactions of Don José were better acted, and their kiss and her subsequent embarrassment were particularly adorable. She excelled dramatically in her portrayal of the desperate but resolute girl of Act III, and her aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” received a long, well-deserved round of applause.

As Escamillo, Kostas Smoriginas displayed a fiery personality and a pleasant but not particularly distinctive voice. His characterization of the proud bullfighter was spot-on, though it looked like he could have used a few more lessons in gracefully mounting his horse onstage! Among the smaller roles, Anush Hovhannisyan and Rachel Kelly stood out as a stellar Frasquita and Mercédès. Their voices blend beautifully, and their card duet was a joy to hear. They also displayed an unusual fierceness in their characterizations; these are gypsy women who wouldn’t think twice about stabbing you if you interfered with their plans. Nicolas Courjal made a strong impression as Zuniga, with a lovely, resonant voice and roguish mischievousness.

The Royal Opera Chorus sounded good throughout, and the women deserve particular commendation for the most powerful and haunting cigarette chorus I’ve heard. The children’s choristers were irresistibly endearing, with great sound and well-executed stage business during the changing of the guard that drew many laughs.

If you come to this production of Carmen looking for a radically new take on Bizet’s opera, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you take it for what it is – a traditional staging of a classic opera – you’ll find a lot to enjoy.