Here's the worst thing about the Baltimore Opera Company's current production of Bizet's "Carmen": Carmen herself.
On Saturday night in the Lyric Opera House, mezzo-soprano Isola Jones sang the role in a manner that was unsteady in tone and showed a persistent inability to control dynamic shadings. Her French left a good deal to be desired and she performed with vocal and physical hipswinging that was vulgar rather than sexy. Friends this listener respects say that Jones, who has sung major roles at the Metropolitan Opera, was -- until very recently -- an outstanding singer. But the 40-year-old's voice sounds much older than it should.
Here's the best thing about the BOC's "Carmen": the performance of its orchestra under the Mexican conductor Enrique Batiz. From the moment the overture began, a listener knew that he would need to fasten his seat belt. Batiz' conducting was all Mediterranean fire -- sparkling and clean, flashy and elegant, passionate and musical -- and he had a fine ability to shade expression within a basic tempo. It was dramatically urgent music making, which built inexorably to the opera's swift and terrible climax.
The rest of the production fell between the extremes of Jones and Batiz. The best of the singers was John Absalom as Jose. He understood the role, he had the technical control for Jose's high-flying B-flats, his voice had body in all parts of his range and he sang with taste (there was no pulling about in the "Flower Song"). But Absalom was hard to believe as Carmen's handsome young soldier. He needs acting lesson and he needs either to go on a diet or do several daily sets of abdominal crunches.
Carmen Balthrop contributed a nicely sung Micaela in which the maternal and the resourceful were well balanced. Craig Heath Nim's Escamillo was loud and dull. The bullfighter is a character who needs to be handsome both vocally and physically, and Nim was neither.
The smaller roles were well sung; the choristers were excellent, with the boys a special joy, and stage director Matthew Lata did an inobtrusively effective job in managing the action. The production, designed by the Chilean-born Soledad Salame, who lives and works in Baltimore, had an appropriately dark crimson-colored blood and sand look.
"Carmen" will be repeated at the Lyric Wednesday and Friday at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 685-0692.