Director Lindy Hume's startling Carmen, for New Zealand Opera, captivates and confronts, from the moment its overture accompanies a silent chorus challenging us, eye to eye, from the stage.

A Seville street comes to life and soldiers harass Emma Pearson's admirably resilient Micaela. When Carmen appears, she is no coquette; Nino Surguladze's Habanera, delivered on a staircase, exudes sexuality but on her own terms. Dan Potra's resourceful set transports the action right through to the shadow of the bull ring in a production that benefits from three strong principals.

Alongside the superb Surguladze, James Clayton is a persuasive Escamillo, in cool greatcoat rather than toreador jacket and Tom Randle an eternally anguished Don Jose.

Hume's eye for detail extends to subtly-hued smugglers' skirts and a neat turnaround when leering, sexist soldiers are encouraged to take off their jackets by Carmen and her friends, projected in the shadow play of Matthew Marshall's lighting.

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In a night of fine singing (and playing from Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under Francesco Pasqualetti) Amelia Berry and Kristin Darragh stand out with some delightfully theatrical card reading. Inevitably, with spoken dialogue, Bizet's score falls into fragmented numbers, until Fate closes in for the final scene.

This is a cluster of coups de theatre from confrontational chorus to Carmen, elegantly composed in her resignation, playing out her cat-and-mouse game with Don Jose.

Aucklanders have three more opportunities to enjoy this first-rate production. If missed, it might provide ample justification for a mainland trip to catch its mid-July Christchurch season.

What: Carmen
Where and when: Aotea Centre; Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
Reviewer: William Dart