Maria Ewing offers a different Carmen

The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Bizet's ``Carmen'' should have been one of the highlights of the season. After all, this most popular of operas is widely considered one of the few truly great ones ever written. As it turned out, the production was neither a triumph nor a fiasco. With the exception of Maria Ewing's intentionally alienating Carmen, the evening proved so routine as to warrant little discussion.

The sets, designed by John Bury, are handsome enough, if you like your Bizet squalid and grimly naturalistic, though the first act suggests some lurid Dickensian setting rather than impoverished Seville. And Sir Peter Hall's direction is on the level of traffic cop -- go here, go there, don't worry whether it's motivated or not.

Carmen is one of the great roles for a mezzo-soprano. There are so many ways to play her, but at the core of all great Carmens lies a stylish singer who understands how to shade words and communicate the text with nuance. She must be a gifted actress, capable of radiating a feminine mysteriousness of presence that the audience and the characters on stage will immediately respond to.

I guess we were all supposed to marvel at Miss Ewing's brave efforts to rethink this gypsy girl. And, in a certain grim way, her pouty, naughty-brat wench of a Carmen proved fascinating as an object lesson in how not to do the role. Her voice has neither the timbre nor the weight for the part, and too often she resorted to an arsenal of barks, gulps, gasps, lunges, and whispers to make her points. So much for the mysterious and endlessly fascinating siren who lures men to their doom.

In this production, Don Jos'e must become a superwimp to engender anything like credibility in the implausible situation. This, Luis Lima does very effectively. In fact, he gets my vote as the best tenor actor to come down the pike in too long a time. But even Mr. Lima's compelling attempts to make this ``Carmen'' work (despite the fact that his voice cracked in the ``Flower Song'' and generally tired vocally by the end of the evening) could not help Miss Ewing.

An unacceptable Escamillo (Arthur Thompson), a strenuously overwrought Mica"ela (Catherine Malfitano), and James Levine's assured but somewhat remote conducting rounded out the evening.

``Carmen'' plays, with various cast changes, through May 2, then goes on the road as part of the Met's final spring tour.

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