Despite winning the coveted Prix de Rome, Bizet struggled to have his operas performed. When the Opéra-Comique commissioned an opera, Bizet adapted Mérimée’s Carmen. This was a catastrophic decision.

Whole families came to the Opéra-Comique. Bizet’s tale about an immoral woman with multiple lovers, living as a bandit, and onstage murder was shocking. Definitely not family viewing. The reviews were harsh – the heroine should not be an amoral seductress nor should the chorus smoke. Bizet, deeply depressed, said – ‘I foresee a definite and hopeless flop’. Two months later he was dead aged 36, never imagining that Carmen would become one of the most popular operas of all time.

Outside the Seville cigarette factory, men wait for the girls, especially Carmen, to finish work. Don José (here a policeman, not a soldier), is indifferent. Carmen decides that he is the one to seduce. Micaëla gives José a message from his mother.  José is told to arrest Carmen. Flirting mercilessly, he lets her escape. José is imprisoned. On his release, he rushes to Carmen. Instead, fate sends him to the mountains with Carmen’s smugglers. Carmen tires of him quickly, falling for Escamillo, the toreador. José, insanely jealous, stabs Carmen outside the bullring.

Those expecting a new production from Damiano Michieletto to equal his award-winning Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci will be disappointed.  Flamboyant castanet flamenco is missing. Because only three bullfighters enter the bullring, Act 4 lacks the spectacle, thrills and excitement needed to build the dramatic tension for the second part where José and Carmen are alone. Without it, the final tragedy is not a contrast.

We are not in Seville, but a hot provincial town with little going on.  Paolo Fantini’s design uses a revolving stage to depict large open spaces and contrasting small, dingy, oppressive rooms for the police station, night club, and toreador’s dressing room. The dressing room is an interesting touch, as the tailor makes last-minute alterations before the toreadors go into the bullring. Older children scare and bully younger ones.

In Merimée’s source material, José killed someone over a game of pelota, joining the army to escape prosecution. No wonder José’s mother always worries about her killer son with a temper. Every time the fate theme appears, so does José’s mother, holding the ‘death’ tarot card. A novel idea, but it becomes annoying and distracts from the drama. In this production José strangles Carmen instead of stabbing, Michieletto cleverly developing José’s increasingly psychopathic behaviour.

57-year-old Polish tenor Piotr Beczala (José) and 27-year-old Russian mezzo phenomenon, Aigul Akhmetchina (Carmen), fresh from Carmen at the Met, look and act convincingly together.

Veteran Polish Superstar tenor Piotr Beczala as José, still one of the greatest lyric tenors, is outstanding. He mainly sings in Europe and the Met, last singing at ROH nearly 10 years ago.  Beczala looks terrific, possesses a thrilling voice, rock-solid technique, perfect intonation and exquisite pianissimi. I have never heard a dud note. He makes it look easy. His José is torn between love/lust and duty.

Akhmetshina’s Carmen is sexy, peevish and manipulative. A former Jette Parker artist, she was tipped for stardom years ago, and is on her way. She sings Carmen everywhere at the moment.  She has a rich low register and a warm exciting velvet cream sound. Her French needs improvement. Akhmetshina’s Carmen never loves José, he is merely her route to freedom instead of prison. Her romantic tryst after José’s release from prison just repays her debt.

Ukranian Olga Kulchynska as bookish Micaëla is an unexpected star. Her gorgeous lyric soprano is destined for greater things.

The Act 2 Chanson Bohémienne, is composed for Frasquita, Mercedès and Carmen to each sing one verse. Here, Carmen sings them all. Three different voices give variety and build excitement. One voice drags.  It should end with a flourish, but falls flat. Sarah Dufresne (Frasquita) and Gabrielė Kupšytė are excellent and should sing their verse.

Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo, looking more a shabby lime-green-suited spiv than a dashing toreador, takes time to warm up for the Toreador song. It lies awkwardly high for some baritones. He sounds better in the second half.

Armenian baritone and Jette Parker Artist, Grisha Martirosyan stands out as a future Escamillo.

Carmen is all about the voice. With Beczala and Akhmetshina, this is an expensive sellout. Don’t miss this at the cinema on 1st May!

Olga Kuchinskaya is singing Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in Poole on 8th May.


Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. London.

Music by Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Libretto Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy based on novella by Prosper Mérimée

Conducted by Antonello Manacorda

Directed by Damiano Michieletto

Photo Credit

Cast includes Piotr Beczala, Aigul Akhmetshina, Kostas Smoriginas, Olga Kulchynska, Blaise Malaba

Running time 3 hours 10 minutes with one interval

Performances until 31st May 2024