An unearthly torpor hangs over long stretches of ENO's latest Carmen. Perhaps it's the strangely subdued daylight, which seems to shroud the Andalucian glare in a heat haze. It could be David Atherton's expansive conducting, which enjoys the score so much, it gets slower and slower, though the orchestra sounds well on it. Or it might be a new cast only starting to gel.
Then again, this is the show's fourth revival by David Ritch, and the Spanish Civil War setting originally devised nine years ago by Jonathan Miller has inevitably taken on a familiarity within the house that undermines the shock factor for the audience.
Whatever the reason, the experience isn't the intense directness you expect from Bizet's definitive version of operatic high drama. Sudden bursts of energy stand out like flashes of full sunlight. One such is the arrival of Escamillo the matador, done up in a sharp suit like one of EastEnders' buffoon villains, but strongly projected by Peter Coleman-Wright in his first go at the part. Another is the children's chorus, which blasts its way through the routine crowd bustle before the bullfight with late-night high spirits. And the dramatic tension cranks up fully at the final fateful encounter of Carmen and Don Jose.
There are other notable debuts in roles, starting with the Carmen of Sara Fulgoni. This is a Carmen whose relish of anything in, or preferably out of, trousers is so infectious that you can just about accept the sidelining of her more philosophically libertarian aspects. Her dancing seduction of Don Jose may be a touch more ladette than Gypsy, but it certainly has the impact of irresistible force meeting all too easily movable object. Vocally, the tone is cool, suave and - at least until the later stages, when the full power gets going - one-coloured.
For Act I, when the music-making is more subdued, she's upstaged by Alison Roddy's Micaela. Sturdy but forever being brushed aside, the role still attracts sopranos because it has a plum of an aria and a peach of a duet, and Roddy's talents for character made much of her plucky handling of the soldiers. The duet with Don Jose was the evening's musical high point, soft, spacious and fluent. "I'll be all right - I'll be all right," are the words she has to speak as she arrives for her Act III aria. Well, she was all right, but, like Micaela herself, she sounded a little nervous. This should become quite a performance as the run goes on. Her fellow ENO Young Singer Stephanie Marshall impressed quietly as Mercedes - a secondary role but traditionally important as a way of understudying Carmen. We shall see.
The nearest to a binding force, apart from the laid-back pace, was the presence of John Hudson's highly original Don Jose - stolid, repressed and traditional, a challenge for Carmen - which he sang in a finely controlled high register. It just had to end in violence, and the vocal power was more impressive for being left until the last act. Good things here and there, then, but it is a production that has become less than the sum of its parts.
To 3 July (020-7632 8300)