THE BALTIMORE Opera Company opened its 40th season Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House with a newly produced "Carmen" that showed the tired old Seville girl more seductive than usual. The overall effect is a listening and visual treat rarely experienced here.
* Rather than a milling crowd opening the 115-year-old Georges Bizet opera, a single lighted dancer seductively uncoiled to an early theme as the darkened townspeople and soldiers showed backs to the audience.
* Instead of cigarette girls simply coming on the Seville street scene, they came on to the street crowd, ambling one by one down a staircase, languidly puffing away to the lyrical music and setting the tone of sexual tension and danger.
* Instead of diluting the concluding murder scene with the usual bullfight crowd surging back on stage, Don Jose was alone with his dead Carmen, tenderly and terribly laying her down twice as the street darkened and light focused through a darkened archway of despair.
Director Matthew Lata scored with these dramatic moments.
* And rather than offering sets showing routine streets, tavern and mountains, artist Soledad Salame gave the audience a kaleidoscopic feast of reds, yellows, browns and blues in paintings and sculptures capturing at different depths, windows or city lights or precipices or bullrings. Salame sent the viewers' imagination roaming as the Bizet melodies splashed over them.
No opera heroine dominates as does Carmen. So all of these and other new dramatic bonbons would have fallen flat with an unexciting, only adequate mezzo-soprano. But Isola Jones, singing and acting Carmen with fire, illuminated the stage in her Baltimore Opera debut as few or no Carmens anywhere today.
Her voice was lush and sensuous as she sang the Carmen liturgy: the sexy descending chromatic scale of the Habanera song, "Love is free as the wayward breeze"; the lilting seguidilla dance, "My heart . . . is eager for love with someone new"; the gypsy song, "The same old song"; the card song, "It's death . . . the cards never lie."
But the sultry Jones, changing from white dress to colors to black outfit as the evening progressed, acted with hot precision. This Carmen caught a tambourine from half a stage away while dancing on a table. She sang, danced and played castanets smoothly. She fought kicking and scratching with other girls. She toyed with Don Jose's sword. She applauded the bullfighter, signaling the next conquest. She tossed the red cassia flower at Don Jose and it hit him "like a bullet." She horsed around with her smuggling buddies.
John Absalom sang the pathetic Don Jose with strong, clear tenor tones leading the soldier from dragoon corporal to prison to desertion to dishonor to murder.
He touched listeners but not Carmen with his "I kept your flower," sung on knees. It is one of the precious few tender arias in "Carmen," which for all its tension about love, has no traditional love scene between Carmen and Don Jose.
The other gentle moments were supplied when Carmen Balthrop, in plain blue peasant dress, sang in the first and third acts. Scared to death and alone in the strange world of mountain smugglers, Micaela waited for her beloved Don Jose. Alone on stage, soprano Balthrop delicately sang the simple, beautiful "I say that nothing will frighten me," a calm moment in the three-hour production.
Craig Heath Nim, baritone, sang his boastful Toreador Song confidently and tried with some success to inject some new feeling in that martial-style macho number. It's a hard hunk of music to like.
For any fans weary of some other standard "Carmen" melodies, there is enough extra activity to attract. The rest of the cast sang stylishly. Especially effective were the two mezzo-sopranos, Steffanie Pearce and Marcia Plait Treece, singing Carmen's gypsy friends.
Conductor Enrique Batiz, in his debut here, led the Baltimore Opera Orchestra in an exciting, fast-paced tempo that captured the often frenetic moods. The Baltimore Opera chorus directed by Tom Hall was in vibrant, unified voice, though it seemed the women had an edge in liveliness. The Children's Chorus under Andrea Nutter Macon, in providing contrast to the dark Carmen theme, was fine in mimicking with lots of spirit and tones the soldiers and matadors. Maryland Ballet dancers performed short, beguiling dances.
Some minor matters could be adjusted: Don Jose's discarded knife sounded like a tin spoon, for instance, and orchestra and children were a bit out of sync at the outset. But what to do about some ticket-holders still scrambling for their seats as the music opens different acts?
Three more performances are scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Oct. 17 and 19 and 3 p.m. Oct. 21. Tickets are available for all performances.