Carmen is regularly among the most performed operas in the world, and Sydney certainly isn’t behindhand in producing Bizet’s most beloved work. Last year, it was staged “on the harbour” in an open-air extravaganza which included tanks and lorries on cranes, fireworks, and an open-topped limousine on which the toreador made an Elvis-like entrance. This year, the bankable opera is back in the iconic Opera House, with 22 performances scheduled between now and the end of March. The production, directed by Francesca Zambello, is one familiar to Sydneysiders, having been imported from Covent Garden in 2008. Compared with the Harbour version, it is a more muted, traditional affair, with dun-coloured backdrops and minimal props replacing the gigantic neon lettering of last year. Not that coups de théâtre were wanting: the Toreador’s entrances in Acts II and IV were on horseback, and the Act IV pageantry was a feast for the eyes. Overall, however, the focus was back on the storytelling after the pleasurable razzmatazz of the Harbour production, and thanks to committed performances from the entire cast, the tale of passion and obsession was brought off with panache.

The Prelude on opening night had some of the most committed playing I’ve yet heard from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra: under the direction of Antony Walker, the festive music at the start was crisp and thrilling. The curtain rose during the tortured final section, showing an agonised Don José being apprehended, as presumably happens after the final curtain. The opening scene was the picture of bustling life, with pranking children dodging among the stock characters of a Spanish plaza (duenna, sellers, strollers). The children’s chorus sang delightfully, and it was particularly pleasing to hear this number again after it had been cut last year.

A more louche element was provided by the flirtations of the sultry cigarette girls in their “fumée” number, and the temperature was raised further in Carmen’s opening Habanera. The archetypal seductress was played by the rich-voiced Nancy Fabiola Herrera, who embraced the physicality of a role she has played in many of the world’s great theatres. Vocally, she more than met her match in Dmytro Popov’s Don José. The latter had deliciously full top notes without ever straining, and he grew into his role as the evening progressed, giving a vivid portrayal of his character’s moral disintegration. The only downside to his performance was his spoken French, which at times was barely comprehensible.

As is frequently the case with Opera Australia productions, the chorus was infiltrated by a number of dancers, and these were particularly in evidence during the dimly lit Gypsy Song the start of Act II. While their increasingly athletic dance was characterful, the intermittent stamping was in danger of drowning the music during the lightly orchestrated opening, and would have been better reserved for the more abandoned, tambourine-assisted repetitions of the tune later on. Michael Honeyman was less of a braggart than other toreadors have been and doesn’t have the biggest voice, but his main number, delivered from a table, had a certain amount of flair.

The other singers were all competent or better. Natalie Arroyan, who played Micaela, sounded pleasant, especially in her touching duet with José in Act I, while her Act III air was properly passionate. Curiously, she was an onlooker when her lover disgraced himself for Carmen at the end of Act I, and again to see his fatal deed at the very end; however, since all eyes were (presumably) on the protagonists at these crucial moments, it wasn’t obvious what purpose she fulfilled. The Zuniga of Adrian Tamburini provided welcome comic relief, his strongly projected voice complementing his amusingly exaggerated gestures, the whole crowned by the sight of him toppling over at the end of Act II. Luke Gabbedy’s Dancairo was also strong, despite a ludicrous moustache, while Jane Ede and Tania Ferris combined well as the gypsies Frasquita and Mercédès respectively. The chorus was excellent, never sacrificing vocal quality or cohesion even when the action was very physical as in the Act I fight between the partisans of Manuelita and Carmencita. And a special commendation to the man who unfussily dealt with the horse droppings in Act II, hopefully the shittiest role he ever has to undertake in the theatre.