Like The Nutcracker, the Opera House's other offering this festive season, Bizet's 1875 opera about a soldier who deserts the army for love of a capricious gypsy woman is a work that was not well-regarded in its own time but has gone on to become one of the world's best-loved and most performed. Carmen is full to the brim with cracking tunes, including Carmen's own voluptuous Act 1 Habanera and the celebrated Toreador's Song, orchestrated with a sunny Iberian finesse. The current version is a revival of Francesca Zambello's 2006 production, created to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Opera House.
There's a lot to enjoy about this production. Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili gives a great account of the sensual, free-spirited gypsy girl who lures soldier Don José away from his life as a soldier and plans of marriage to simple country maiden Micalela. As well as a fine, full-throated singing performance, Rachvelishvili physicalises the role well, dancing provocatively on the table of a tavern and pinning her lover brazenly to the ground with her thighs. Roberto Alagna as José gives a suitably anguished performance, tugged by passion and forced by his own jealousy into dereliction of his duty, racked with guilt at abandoning his dying mother, desolate when Carmen tires of him and leaves him for the superstar Toreador Escamillo (Vito Priante).
The work's melodramatic pleasures are wrung from the score by an extremely capable cast, and conductor Daniel Oren keeps Bizet's Sevillian score moving along at a fiery pace. Even in the emotionally extreme context of this opera, however, Escamillo's entrance on horseback strays into the realm of excess; Arthur Pita's clumpy and frequently noisy ensemble choreography lacks the delicacy of true sevillanas and in places drowns out the playing.
These odd moments can't detract from the brilliance of Bizet's music, however, or from the quality of the main cast. If you're tired of the usual pre-Christmas diet of sweet-themed fluff, this meaty melodrama makes an excellent alternative.
Carmen at the Royal Opera House WC2E 9DD runs until 9 January. Last few tickets remaining: http://www.roh.org.uk/. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary review ticket.