Enter Carmen, their star turn. She's done all her numbers before, and they work every time. So who can she bait today? Draped against the factory wall, looking for all the world like she's posing for Life magazine (wonderful lighting by Tom Mannings), she's straight into her favourite Habanera - her signature number. ENO has a terrific Carmen in Louise Winter. Anyone who's been watching this singer's progress of late will know that the timing is good. She's ready, the voice is set. She certainly doesn't spare it, pulling everything she has up from the chest register, going all-out for the vocal bump-and-grind, the insinuating curl and croon of a quasi-cabaret style. She and Miller steer well clear of the pursed- lip, hip-swinging obvious: Carmen doesn't need to work at being "sexy", alluring - she is. And therein lies her feminism. Her free spirit. She'll exploit men as surely as they've always exploited her. That's the deal.
Don Jose is "different" - she says it herself. He's a challenge. Any man who busily cleans his rifle during her hit number has to be. Miller sets him up beautifully with that one action. He's too good to live, wet as the rainy season, more excited by a kiss from his hapless girlfriend Micaela (the excellent Janice Watson) when he knows it's from his mother, the kind of man who'll lose control, fling a chair halfway across Lillas Pastia's bar, but straightaway replace it. Carmen lives for the moment; Jose lives for a tomorrow that will never come. Which makes Robert Brubaker's pathetic, broken, whingeing figure all the more believable in the last scene. And Brubaker really goes for it. Vocally, he's as unstinting as his Carmen. I can live without the finesse. It's a brave performance.
So here's a show which, like Miller's Rigoletto, could run and run. It looks great (sets Peter J Davison, costumes Sue Blane), kind of Broadway- grubby and just as busy - though not so busy that the detail doesn't tell. Miller knows his craft. He's good at living canvasses. There's always something to catch the eye. Like the boy who asks the other boy for a dance in the Act 2 bar scene. That opening number really builds in the choreography (Terry John Bates), Miller cross-cutting our focus from one dirty-dancing couple to the next. And again, it takes a real director to ensure that the crucial look that flashes between Carmen and Escamillo (a booming Robert Hayward) is not lost in the crowd.
The "crowd", in the shape of that vociferous ENO Chorus (plus refreshingly raucous, street-wise kids), were in fine fettle. It was a good evening, too, for Sian Edwards, with playing from the orchestra that was splashy and feisty without lacking heart. But my mind will go back to Winter's proud Carmen, resolutely refusing to succumb to Jose's knife, still freshening her lipstick even as the last breath was leaving her body.
n In rep to 15 Nov. Booking: 0171-632 8300