Carmen for children

What would an eight year-old think of Bizet's opera? Helen Wallace heads to the Royal Opera House with her daughter to find out

‘So – is it about sex?’ The Royal Opera posters for this Carmen left little to the imagination. Oily bare-backed floozy in the clutches of grubby male. ‘And my friend says there are cigarettes!’

Yes, indeed, we are dealing with deadly sins. We’re off to the family performance of this triple X-rated extravaganza, and it’s Francesca, my eight year-old’s first taste of the Covent Garden main stage. Of course, being a metropolitan sort of gal, she was already familiar with the Royal Opera's Linbury Studio, and has a Nutcracker under her belt. Not quite the target audience for this special ‘introductory day’ but certainly new to proper grand opera with the classiest international singers – Roberto Alagna as Don José (‘But he’s smaller than her!), Ildebrando d’Arcangelo as the sequinned, dusky Escamillo (‘I think I’d prefer him’) and the smouldering Elina Garanca (pictured) as Carmen.

And, for children, Francesca Zambello’s production undoubtedly delivers. Escamillo comes in on a very large and very real horse, the Sevillians have the use of an extremely obliging donkey to carry their baskets about. There are even chickens – and lots of children. Above all, here is a Carmen whose beauty genuinely outshines everyone else on stage. The drama is crystal clear – of course they’d all fancy that one. She sings well too, and even makes a convincing stab at dancing on the table (Francesca, a novice flamenco dancer herself, noted the footwork wasn’t authentic, more tap dance) – but the troupe of ‘real’ flamenco dancers wowed everyone in the bar scene, and did a great stint in the Floral Hall before the performance.

The verdict in the interval? ‘Too much snogging.’ And the ROH had shamefully run out of sandwiches before midday, leaving half their young audience with empty bellies before the show (kick-off was 12.30pm). To make matters worse, we got to the end of the ice-cream queue as the bell tolled only to be informed they couldn’t be taken in. How would the children survive another hour and a half? Miraculously, they did: a lot of stylish but pointless abseiling in the gypsy camp scene got them through Micaëla’s mournful aria and then we were saved by a return of the horse and some fabulous dresses for the bullfight – not forgetting some brilliant music by Bizet. Alagna’s self-torture is genuinely thrilling in the stab scene but thank goodness he and Carmen both came on arm in arm for the curtain call: ‘So they do like each other really! They were just pretending!’

Ah, the magic of theatre…