It is significant that the curtain is already raised and we spend Bizet's festive prelude gazing at Michael Vale's grubby, industrialised set. This back passage of Seville is about as romantic as Bizet's opera is Spanish, and it sets the tone of David McVicar's down, dirty and dangerous staging. Here's a Carmen where people shout, spit, shag, stomp and clap as passionately as they sing. There really is no way out of the Bullring. Carmen leaves her blood there, on the wall like a love token.
Revisiting McVicar's production, it's the visceral aspects of the piece that take hold. How rare are productions of Carmen with a sense of real urgency in survival, where the singing and dancing and mating carry the unmistakable desperation of living for that moment only. It helps that McVicar and Vale pack a lot of humanity into very small spaces. At the bar in Act II, lusty living spills over in a fug of cigarette smoke. Even before the curtain is up you can hear the voices working themselves into a frenzy. It's all blood, sweat, and tears.
It is for Carmen. And there's a lot to enjoy in Tania Kross's performance. She's quite a handful, in every sense. Perhaps the voice is a bit too plummy – I missed the insinuation, the attitude, in those nasally French vowels and I'm not sure I ever really believed in her wildness of spirit. When this Carmen sniffs her armpits, it's for show, not for sex. But she's game, and she's feisty, and she grows with the evening – mainly because she's playing against a Don José who is genuinely more dangerous than she is.
Brandon Jovanovich puts in a storming performance as the weak corporal with anger-management problems. Even as he's crooning sweet-nothings to Carmen in the "Flower Song", his grainy, vibrant voice poses a threat. By Act III his top notes are positively psychotic. He even looks different, his handsome demeanour eaten away by anger.
Only Micaëla might have saved him, but she was always too late. McVicar has her witness both his first and last betrayal and, in Kate Royal's beautifully centred and sung performance, it is she who shoulders all his heartache. There's plenty of that, too, in Stéphane Denève's intensely long-breathed conducting. This is an evening where Carmen improvises her castanet rhythms on Don José's body. If you don't believe me, start phoning for returns.
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