Georges Prtre is such an old hand at Carmen, having conducted his first performance of it some 60 years ago and made the famous recording with Maria Callas 41 years ago, that we can but be amazed at the energy and freshness with which he sets about this wonderful score. He strides onto the stage and within a split second, not halting to make the customary bow and taking the audience by complete surprise, tears into the flamboyant overture at breakneck speed. He employs extreme economy of gesture sometimes he hardly seems to move at all but never fails to keep complete control of the soloists, the S. Cecilia Orchestra and Choir, galvanizing them into a whirling momento which never slackens. So vivid is the music and so dramatic the action that the lack of staging does not matter at all, and the last scene, in which the choir files off to reappear behind the audience, while the unbearably tragic finale climaxes between Don Jos and Carmen alone on stage, is exceedingly effective.

Carmen is the dazzlingly dark and luscious young Russian mezzo, Julia Gertseva; her voice is not exactly beautiful, indeed it can be almost harsh, but it has an effortless expressiveness which ranges from the most powerful to the most tender. Poor Don Jos does not stand a chance.

Norah Amsellem is an impressive Micala; her strong singing rendered the character much more than the sad, betrayed female it can so easily become.

The doomed Don Jos can also risk being rather pathetic, putting up as he does with Carmens appalling behaviour, but the delivery of the American tenor Marcus Haddock in the role is so heroic that he ensures that the character comes over as deeply tragic.

Perhaps the only disadvantage of such a performance is that the orchestra is so close to the singers that their voices risk being drowned in the sound; Gregg Baker as Escamillo was initially difficult to hear over the orchestration, but soon raised his volume as the evening proceeded and was splendidly imposing, physically and vocally.

The minor roles were very well cast, and special mention must also be made of the excellence of the Coro di Voci Bianche di Roma, who were a delight as the band of street gamins.

Concert performance at the Auditorium, Parco della Musica,

Sala S. Cecilia, www.santacecilia.it. Further performances 7 and 9 March 2005

www.john-fort.com