Opera / Carmen WNO Cardiff New Theatre

For your committed opera director, Carmen has often seemed like red rag to a bull. What else is there to be said about it, darling? But Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser mercifully avoid the Carmen statement in their new Welsh National Opera production, which opened in Cardiff on Saturday. Though not without idiosyncrasy and a certain conscious theatrically, this is a memorable, text-based staging that gives us the work, not a clutter of post-modern attitudes to it.

All the same, one is conscious that particular decisions have been taken: the decision, for instance, to move the action out of its public arena - to privatise it, one might say. So Morales and friends discourse about non-existent passers-by; Carmen sings her gypsy song to an audience of two, without dancers; and in the last scene the chorus report (with brilliant vitality) on an invisible procession.

It's a Carmen of strong, static set-pieces, rather than the wide-angle and the zoom lens, and it's largely decontextualised: Christian Fenouillat's Seville is a few colour-washed front- and backcloths, some chairs and tables, and several bowls of oranges. Carmen herself, while she goes on about freedom and the call of the wild, is actually confined by civilised items like a chair or a table. Jose and Micaela duet looking away from each other and kiss embarrassedly, barely brushing cheeks. Carmen and Escamillo croon sentimentally in a pool of soft light in a sea of gloom on an otherwise empty stage.

The real strength of Caurier-Leiser is in their meticulous direction of the singers, and it's a strength rewarded here by a very good cast, singing in at least passable French. Carmen herself, sung with fine poise and lovely dark tone by Sara Fulgoni, is kept life-size - one gypsy among several - which in no way belittles Jose's obsession, but makes it more personal. Alwyn Mellor's Micaela is an object-lesson in the treatment of pale convention: deliciously well sung, sensitive, precise and just sufficiently aware of the role's artificiality. Her aria delivered against the proscenium arch is a perfect idea, discreet and subtle.

Perhaps John Dazsak's wan, lumpish Jose is not merely a director's image, but the role comes to life in his singing, which is beautifully focused, stylish and controlled. If there's a weakness, it's Bruno Caproni's saturnine Escamillo - a curiously laborious, introspective torero. But Heather Lorimer and Annie Vavrille are striking as Frasquita and Mercedes, and Simon Thorpe and Peter Hoare add real flair to the quintet.

The American conductor Robert Spano directs with crisp authority if not yet thorough command of pit-to-stage ensemble. The slowish tempi he sometimes prefers need sharper ensemble, and the quicker ones want simply to be tidier. But there is no mistaking his musical grasp, which he shares with the whole production.

At the New Theatre, Cardiff, 19, 24 Feb, 1, 7 Mar (01222 878889); Bristol Hippodrome, 11, 14 Mar (0121-622 7486); Birmingham Hippodrome, 18, 21 Mar (0121-622 7486); The Mayflower, Southampton, 25, 27 Mar (01703 711811); Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 1, 4 Apr (01865 244544); Empire Theatre, Liverpool, 8, 11 Apr (0151-709 1555), Grand Theatre, Swansea 15, 18 Apr (01792 475715)

Stephen Walsh