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`Carmen' makes high-caliber comeback at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera's current revival of Bizet's ``Carmen'' - after last year's disastrous production - is a notable triumph. Fortunately, much of the former staging has been abandoned, and the cast, headed by Agnes Baltsa in the title role, sings ``Carmen'' as it should be sung. This is the kind of casting we need to see more of at the Met. (Happily, it will be telecast April 1 at 8 p.m. on PBS's ``Live from the Met'').

Sir Peter Hall's production last year chose to go back to the Prosper Merim'ee novella for most of his ideas about the motivations of the characters in the drama. But Bizet quite clearly chose to replace Merim'ee's gritty amoral tone with something more mysterious, fascinating, even complicated. Thus, Mr. Hall's production superimposed an attitude of sullen hostility and even brutality on Bizet's more varied and animated music.

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In Maria Ewing, that production had an alienating Carmen, coached in every facet of the performance by Hall, her director/husband. Even had she attempted a traditional portrayal, though, she would never have been right for the part temperamentally or vocally.

Miss Baltsa, Europe's most acclaimed Carmen, gives an altogether different performance, and the entire production has been restaged to fit her conception.

In fact, only the John Bury sets - for the most part handsome and effective - remain from last season's unpleasantness, and they take on a new luster.

Baltsa is unlike any Carmen you are apt to encounter - a totally rethought concept that stresses an aggressive, feline side to the role. This controversial Carmen stalks her prey, as a feisty hellion used to toying with her ``victims'' and teasing them into reacting to her. And then she meets Don Jos'e. Too late does she realize that he is no ordinary country boy but rather the embodiment of the bourgeois values she rejects. Though she proclaims herself a free spirit, unwilling to be tied down, she remains paradoxically attracted to Jos'e - even to the end, when she clearly sees that he has been her ruin.

Baltsa makes an unusually multifaceted Carmen, riveting in her unfolding both of the character and the drama in which the character is placed.

She does not make Carmen always lovable or sympathetic; she takes all sorts of histrionic risks to bring this viewpoint thrillingly to life.

Vocally, she is equally compelling. She uses her chest voice - the lower, potentially brassy part of the instrument - more than one might think is wise. Yet almost every musical moment is that of a singer secure in what she is trying to achieve with the instrument. There are harsh sounds, strident ones, yet plenty of strong, communicative, and electrifying ones as well. In every way, Baltsa proves herself a singing-acting star of great talent.

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Her Don Jos'e is tenor Jos'e Carreras. It seems one must always comment on how he is ruining his handsome lyric instrument by branching into the heroic repertoire, yet Don Jos'e is his best role, and he sang it thrillingly opening night. While not much of an actor, he knows how to project a range of emotions through the voice, and lets the listener know what is going through the character's mind at almost all points. And, even in its current estate, Mr. Carreras's remains a singularly beautiful sound.

To add to the luster of the evening, there are Leona Mitchell's vocally lustrous Micaela, and Samuel Ramey's blazing, swaggering Escamillo. This latter role defeats most basses and baritones, yet Mr. Ramey makes it sound as if it were tailor-written for him, and he acts it with his accustomed show-stopping vigor and insight.

The goings-on onstage seem to animate Mr. Levine's conducting, inspiring him to meld with the singers to create something touching and unforgetable. In fact, Carreras, Baltsa, and Levine make the final scene most memorable - hair-raising in its confrontation, desperately moving in its denoument.

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