★★★½☆ Nicole Car’s debut is one of the enjoyable highlights in a sometimes mediocre revival.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
October 27, 2015

This revival of Francesca Zambello’s production of Bizet’s Carmen opened on October 19 in its fifth outing at Covent Garden. The evening goes down well with audiences and it is easy to slot international singers in and out of the main roles to add periodic interest. For instance Jonas Kaufmann takes over the role of Don José on November 14. There is always a difficulty with revivals that both chorus and principals give a ‘painting by numbers’ feel to the production and although there are some fine moments in this performance, the trap is not always avoided by the current cast.

Tanya McCallin’s designs owed more to Santa Fe than 19th-century Seville, but are atmospheric and allow space for obligatory grand opera spectacle. Her design is well aided by atmospheric lighting from Paule Constable. Zambello includes a lot of busy chorus work that occasionally descends into gypsy pastiche, but does its best to keep things afloat and engage the audience.

There are some committed performances amongst the principals and some good voices, but with some exceptions the difficulties of French pronunciation eludes them. Fellow Russians Elena Maximova (Carmen) and Alexander Vinogradov (Escamillo) struggle to use the language to support a beauty of tone and sound a little nasal at times. The basic voices are impressive (Maximova has a stunning resonance in her lower notes) but I feel problems with the language helps limit the range of vocal tone. Maximova inhabits her character with style, but the real nuances of the score sometimes remain hidden in her delivery.

Vinogradoc fares slightly better. Belying his slight frame he has a fully rounded bass voice which at times can thrill, but again singing in French sometimes distracts from the quality of his delivery. His arrival on a black stallion is impressive but I never really grasped why Carmen is attracted to him. Where is the chemistry?

The American tenor Bryan Hymel (Don José) is more at ease with the language. There is a well-placed slow burn as his character develops and he meets all the vocal challenges Bizet gives the tenor. He finds dramatic intensity in the final act but what is lacking is real sexual passion for Carmen. His relationship with Micaela is far more convincing and therein lay the problem for me. I never felt the depth of conflict between his feelings for the two women.  His attraction to Carmen is basically be driven by lust, while home and family draw him to Micaela. The music signals this range of emotions to the audience, but the singer must convey both sides of this inner conflict otherwise the stage tension drops.

Australian soprano Nicole Car pleases the audience with her finely poised interpretation of Micaela. There is the right balance between determination and pathos and a real understanding of the counterbalance the role provides in the opera. Her blue and white ‘Virgin Mary’ costume and hair in a single plat is a little too hackneyed for my taste, but what draws you in is the fluid, liquid tones of her voice. Even as a character as demure as Micaela she holds the stage with a strong vocal and emotional presence.

The current season at Covent Garden has two joint productions with Opera Australia (Carmen and Eugene Onegin) which allows Nicole Car to make her Royal Opera House debut in roles and productions she premiered at home. This must have been a great boost for her in terms of familiarity, but with such a talented singer it was more happy coincidence rather than a necessity. It was good timing by the ROH management to give audiences a taste of what is to come later in the season when she sings the much larger role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin.

It was a delight to see another Australian, Grant Doyle in the small but important role of Le Dancaire ably supported by Timothy Robinson as Le Remendado. They made a fine duo lightening the mood with some excellent singing, real stage presence and genuine energy.  Along with Vlada Borovko as Frasquita and Michele Losier as Mercedes, all four provided a welcome freshness to a sometimes pedestrian revival.