EVEN for an opera novice like me, the catchy musical score of Georges Bizet's Carmen is a familiar one, having infiltrated modern pop culture since it originated in Paris in 1875.

It was for that reason that I found myself sinking into a chair at Oxford's New Theatre on Tuesday night, marvelling at the live orchestra sat before me and ready to broaden my horizons.

As the conductor began brandishing his baton into the air, the shrill of instruments silenced the audience and the curtain rose to reveal the set.

We were transported to 1970s Central America, where love-hungry soldiers armed with rifles were on patrol at a dreary high-rise, unsuccessfully trying to win over the women passing by.

The alarm bell rang at the cigarette factory nearby, and they awaited the stream of female workers to come out for their break - and one in particular.

Carmen, a trouble-making gypsy temptress played by French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, launched into a thrilling song of seduction and managed to charm the soldier Don José.

The track was soon recognisable as Habanera, one of opera's most famous songs.

Having been detained for attacking another woman in the factory, she persuaded him to help her escape, and it is he that was punished with a stint in prison.

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The pair sought each other out upon his release and they passionately declared their love for one another, celebrating with drinks and dancing at the bar of her friend Lillas Pastia.

Don José succumbed to her lawless way of life and abandoned his military duties, despite the pleas of his comparatively dowdy love interest Micaela, who was intent on bringing him home to his devoted mother.

The plot explored the socio-economic hardships battled by Carmen and her bandit friends, and the tragedies that passion and jealousy can trigger.

Contrary to misconceptions of opera being old-fashioned and snobbish, the headstrong heroine Carmen wore a leather jacket and jeans in one act and downed tequila shots in another.

When her affections switched to the champion bull fighter Escamillo, also entranced by her sexuality and confidence, the love rivalry between her admirers escalated.

Directed by Jo Davies, the Welsh National Opera's fresh interpretation of Carmen belies the production's century-old roots.

The only faltering voice in parts was that of Don José, played by Dimitri Pittas, who let out a few coughs during the second act as Carmen sung to him.

After the interval, we were told by a suited man that the singer was suffering from a chest infection, and to forgive him if the illness betrayed him on stage.

A huge round of applause ensued, willing him on from behind the curtain, and he did an incredible job of masking his condition during the remainder.

Packed with fiery spirit and spectacular notes, Carmen is a thrilling watch for an opera first-timer as much as it is for a connoisseur.

Carmen returns to Oxford's New Theatre tonight [Saturday] at 7.15pm - tickets are available here.