Carmen, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Under Oramo, the CBSO violins have taken their place among the world's finest. We heard it in the first searing utterance of Carmen's fate motif, and then throughout, from the lilting accompaniment of Geraldine McGreevy's magnificently sung Micaela to the astonishing way Bizet makes the fate motif seem to whizz, like fireflies, around José's brain.

Symphony Hall works miracles with sound. Where else would you descry a triangle line amid the brassy burlesque of a flamboyant overture? All the off-stage detail was stunning. Only a few times did the hall's finesse get the better of this cast: Mary Hegarty and Emma Selway opted to hammer out Frasquita and Mercedes' Act III card antics, and came croppers - a muzzy soup of sound resulted; Rhydian Roberts' unformed Morales made for a limp Act I start; Dancaire and Remendado (Jonathan Gunthorpe, Nicholas Watts) emerged too much like bit players. Michael Barry's semi-staging, with curious bandilleros looking like quaint escapees from Goya, looked, initially, slightly bizarre, yet served increasingly well.

Orchestra apart, the CBSO chorus - above all the women's and youth sections - came up trumps. Gordon Gietz, the Canadian tenor, produced a ravishing sound for Don José. Time and again, Oramo stilled his forces to enable the leads to deliver their arias like French chanson. The material is there; it's just not every conductor who reveals it. Leigh Melrose served up two verses of Escamillo's alluring Act III song at almost a subdued pianissimo. It was tantalising.

Quentin Hayes was a magnificent-voiced Zuniga. In the title role, many might feel Carmen needs more gipsy snarl and spunkier characterisation; yet Katarina Karnéus more than proved her point that Carmen is a role that need not be remorselessly wellied out. This Carmen was as much calculating as instinctive; her gaping-eyed horror as the knife plunged in was unforgettable.

CBSO (0121-616 6500)

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