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Alas, the times can't leave "Carmen" alone. In the opera's opening scene, nobody was smoking.

For shame! Carmen works, after all, in a cigarette factory in Seville, Spain. The curtain rises on the square right outside it, where she and her co-workers take their midday break. People sing about smoking. But Saturday night at Shea's Center for the Performing Arts, we saw not so much as a panatela.

So much for sultry Spanish ambience. I've never seen a nonsmoking "Carmen."

Well, part of the missing fire was made up for by the lead actors of Saturday's "Carmen," which was performed by the London City Opera. It was a hip, young cast. Brendan MacBride, who sang Don Jose, had that muscular, balding, goateed Gen-X look. Our Carmen, Yvonne Fontane, was far from the tubby Carmens opera has seen in the past. With her loose limbs and long dark hair, she looked like Sandra Bullock.

And the Toreador! As Escamillo, Richard Morris made up for his slight build with tremendous machismo. The mesmerizing pantomime performed in front of the curtain before Act 4 showed him preparing for the arena. First, we saw him kneeling in prayer. Then his henchmen wound a cummerbund around his waist, again and again. Then came the jacket, which the bullfighter kissed for luck. Then the cape. By the time he strode off stage, armed for battle in black and gold, our hearts were with him.

That scene, I thought, was a wonderful touch -- the perfect introduction to that glittering, riveting bullfight music.

And speaking of glittering and riveting music, the orchestra was vigorous, and the voices were quite wonderful, too.

Fontane's mezzo soprano voice, to be honest, could have been stronger and tougher at moments like the big Habanera. She needs time, I think, to develop the vocal swagger her character demands. But she has a beautiful melodic sense, and it showed in the sly Seguidilla with which she enticed Don Jose.

This Carmen also had a grand dramatic feel, slouching around barefoot, tossing her head. She even brought across a curious vulnerability during the striptease she performed for Don Jose in the deserted tavern. (That'll show opera haters what they're missing.)

MacBride made a heartbreaking Don Jose. And Morris, though his voice as well as his person made one of the lighter Escamillos, was a delight. Handsome and debonair, he projected his famous arias easily up to the balcony, where I sat. (I'm told that the people near the back of the first tier weren't as lucky. But then, Shea's isn't kind to opera singers.)

It's interesting that the best voice belonged to Catherine Mikic, who played poor Micaela, Don Jose's neglected girlfriend. Mikic's glorious, bell-like soprano made her Act 1 love duet with Jose one of the opera's most touching moments. It didn't surprise me that she got the biggest applause at the end.

The costumes were splendid and inventive. Alas, the same couldn't be said for the sets, which never quite changed. The walls of the square became the walls of the Act 2 tavern and, for the final scene, the walls of the arena. Even in Act 3, when the smuggling ring is hiding in the mountains, those walls were still there. We had to imagine the darkness and the wild, aided only by a hokey campfire like you'd see in an Amherst condo.

In a way, the sets could be seen as symbolizing the production's limitations. This "Carmen" never quite scaled the great dramatic heights. It was a lot for a light opera company to take on. It has the sparkle and spirit: maybe what it needs is more darkness, more depth.

Next time, I suggest they start with a cigarillo.



Presented by Opera Niagara, performed by the London City Opera

Saturday in Shea's Performing Arts Center

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