The title of Bizet's "Carmen" might suggest that everything rests on the shoulders of its famously tempestuous leading character. Not true. As Covent Garden's hotly anticipated new production thrillingly proves, this most dramatic of operas only achieves true liftoff when all three partners in the central fervid love triangle are on inflammatory form. But it's not just three powerhouse lead performances that fire up the present proceedings. Director Francesca Zambello scores a major hit by making spectacle respectable.

The title of Bizet’s “Carmen” might suggest that everything rests on the shoulders of its famously tempestuous leading character. Not true. As Covent Garden’s hotly anticipated new production thrillingly proves, this most dramatic of operas only achieves true liftoff when all three partners in the central fervid love triangle are on inflammatory form. But it’s not just three powerhouse lead performances that fire up the present proceedings. Director Francesca Zambello scores a major hit by making spectacle respectable.

Where Hitchcock, according to rumor, treated actors like cattle, Zambello (who’s about to join the Disney stable with stage tuner “The Little Mermaid”) treats cattle like actors. A live donkey ambles across the sunny Seville square of the first act, a clutch of chickens actually laid eggs during the first-night performance, and toreador Escamillo (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) makes a suitably high-status entrance on the back of a huge black horse.

The livestock looks all of a piece on Tanya McCullin’s burnt-orange, sculptural sets of curved walls smartly reconfigured for each scene. They’re complemented by late-19th century-style costumes that mercifully banish Spanish gypsy cliches and stick to a peasant-style palette of layered rusts, browns, greens and creams.

The second-act set may look pretty large for a secret smugglers’ tavern, but the place is packed with activity, thanks in part to 34 extra singers, dancers and actors in addition to the already large Opera House chorus. Arthur Pita’s flamenco-style choreography has the supreme virtue of looking natural. The vivid, foot-stamping dancing continues the gypsies’ dramatic line rather than merely operating as token display.

If all that suggests a Seville-theme-park approach, think again. Although Zambello’s almost widescreen grandeur risks swamping the story, as soon as the heavily populated life of each location has been established, the focus narrows. She and conductor Antonio Pappano ensure serious storytelling via full-blooded, intensely characterized singing.

As Carmen, Anna Caterina Antonacci is the real deal. It’s not simply a matter of a ripe, well-supported mezzo sound. Her voice may not have the aficionado’s ideal brooding luster, but this is a rare, genuinely complete performance from a true stage animal.

Hair piled up, wide-shouldered, slim-waisted and barefoot, she effortlessly dominates every man in sight through her sheer infectious enjoyment. Most Carmens go for generalized “torrid” acting. Antonacci’s superbly relaxed Carmen is a triumph of attention to detail. She’s alive to every moment of stage time, which makes her riveting to watch. Even singing her “la-la-la’s” — the score requires that a lot — she makes every teasing phrase count.

She’s given a run for her money in a career-making perf from Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose. Having specialized in Mozart, this role catapults him into a whole new sphere. Out go the expected heroics; in comes subtle phrasing in a role that normally consists of smoldering and showing off.

Kaufmann carefully builds intensity from a studiedly casual start to a powerful love-wrecked final scene. Better still, instead of floridly over-singing his second-act declaration of passion (a favorite tenor habit), he pulls auds toward him by dropping to a brave, quiet, uncovered sound at the very top of his voice. It also won’t hurt his prospects that he’s a completely convincing actor who is tall, slim and handsome to boot.

Escamillo has less to play with, but D’Arcangelo uses his wide-ranging bass-baritone to proud effect whether leaping on and off tables or playing to his adoring crowd. As he knocks out the opera’s greatest hit, it’s abundantly clear that this man can not only seduce Carmen but successfully fight bulls.

Heat surges throughout the production and not just from Paule Constable’s lighting, which ranges from the opening scene’s hot afternoon to the scalding gleam of overhead noonday sun for the final-act bullfight. From the very beginning, the orchestra rips into the overture as if their lives depended upon it. Yet Pappano doesn’t drive the score too hard. His more-haste-less-speed approach allows the music to breathe, with the all-important woodwind given due prominence.

He and Zambello effectively create a new edition of the score midway between the original version’s spoken dialogue and the later addition of recitative. Most of the latter has been scrapped to sharpen the action, which is also the reasoning for a cut at the beginning of the final act.

The fact that this production is being filmed by BBC TV will encourage the edition’s further uptake. The Royal Opera’s last “Carmen” opened in 1991 and was last revived here in 1994. Zambello’s production, which has already virtually sold out a long run, not only fills a crucial repertoire gap, it deservedly looks set to last for years.

Carmen

Royal Opera House, London; 2,254 seats; £160 $315 top

Production

LONDON A Royal Opera and Den Norske Opera production of an opera in two acts with music by Georges Bizet, libretto by Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy after the novel by Prosper Merimee. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Conductor, Antonio Pappano. Choreography, Arthur Pita.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Tanya McCallin; lighting, Paule Constable; animal coordination, Kay Weston and Animalscq Ambassadors; production stage manager, Susan Usher. Opened, reviewed Dec. 8, 2006. Running time: 3 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Carmen - Anna Caterina Antonacci Don Jose - Jonas Kaufmann Escamillo - Ildebrando D'Arcangelo Micaela - Norah Ansellem Frasquita - Elena Xanthoudakis Mercedes - Viktoria Vizin Zuniga - Matthew Rose Le Dancaire - Jean Sebastien Bou Le Remandado - Jean-Paul Fouchecourt Morales - Jacques Imbrailo Lillas Pastia - Caroline Lena Olsson Guide - Anthony Debaeck

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