Daily Mail, 15.12.06
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, 8 December 2006
Sexy Carmen really heats up the house
Surprisingly, it's been 12 years since Bizet's torrid masterpiece was last seen at Covent Garden.

But Francesca Zambello's atmospheric new production, with the mesmeric Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role, makes it well worth the wait.

On a minimalist set, Zambello marshals a huge cast to thrilling effect.

Moving easily from Seville square to tavern, mountain hideout to bull-ring, this is Carmen as a big West End show - but with great operatic voices.

You can almost smell the garlic - and the sweat - as the flamenco dancers (including what appears to be the Spanish version of the Roly Polys) strut and stamp their stuff in Lillas Pastia's smoky tavern.

There are big girls - and a very big horse for the torero, Escamillo, as he trots in to sing his Toreador's Song from the saddle.

I must admit that I'm always dubious when animals come on for a burst of easy applause, and there's a flapping hen and a fluffily shampooed donkey here, too.

But the cast resolutely refused to be upstaged by the livestock, the athletic Don Jose (Jonas Kaufmann) even abseiling down a cliff to join the smugglers.

And it is the terrific performances of Antonacci and Kaufmann that really set this production alight.

The beautiful Italian mezzo is a cerebral as well as sexual Carmen, a femme fatale with brains as well as breasts.

Voluptuous and witty, passionate and wily, this is an intelligent and charismatic portrayal of the often cliched gipsy temptress, sung - as it is acted - with sensual allure.

And the lithe German tenor makes a huge impact as her jealous lover: tortured and goaded, he slinks madly and inexorably to his murderous fate.

He sings the role with baleful beauty - surely the best since Domingo.

Once off his horse, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo gives the necessary swagger to Escamillo, though there's a disappointingly dim and shrill Micaela from Norah Amsellem.

In the pit, conductor Antonio Pappano finds the yearning Gallic charm as well as the searing passion from this most popular of scores.

In all, it's a vibrant evening that happily celebrates the Royal Opera's 60th anniversary.

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