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‘Carmen’ returns to Met Opera in mixed revival

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NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera's revival of its 2½-year-old production of Bizet's "Carmen" was memorable for the debut of conductor Michele Mariotti and for performances by Anita Rachvelishvili and Yonghoon Lee that never quite came together.

Mariotti, principal conductor at Bologna's Teatro Comunale in Italy, put his imprint on the opening night of the run Friday with a briskly conducted overture that bordered on a dash. The 33-year-old shaped a propulsive evening, bringing out the colors of Bizet's score and the vibrancy of Richard Eyre's staging, which opened at the Met on New Year's Eve 2009. Mariotti gets his first high-profile Met assignment in January, the new Michael Mayer staging of Verdi's "Rigoletto" set in 1960 Las Vegas.

Rachvelishvili, a mezzo-soprano who made her Met debut in last year's "Carmen" revival, slinked her way around the set with the sexy moves of the title character in a manner that was labored. She had vocal power to spare in her dusky voice, which has an especially strong top, and her "Habanera" was seductive. Still, she fell short of a smoldering Carmen that is the center of all men's attention.

The boyish-looking, handsome Lee has a vibrant tenor with ping in his upper register and warm piano notes, and he earned big applause for a well-sung Flower Song. But his acting was somewhat stiff and his singing was with marred by poor French diction, with harsh vowels that jarred to the point of distraction. During the final scene, he was filled more with anger than anguish.

They never quite meshed as a couple, failing to display many sparks of attraction. Until the final scene, Don Jose appeared to have more passion for Micaela than Carmen, and the gypsy's interest in Zuniga was far more compelling. Instead of ardor and frustration building to a crescendo, Don Jose seemed to be a trapped passive-aggressive.

Kate Royal, as Jose's empathetic village sweetheart Micaela, gave the most rounded, believable performance and had a shiny, melting soprano top. Kyle Ketelsen was a dashing Escamillo, his bass-baritone opening up after a slightly dry start to the Toreador Song. Former football player Keith Miller was a sexy Zuniga, Jose's military superior — you wondered why Carmen didn't run off with him rather than Escamillo.

Eyre's staging, with sets by Rob Howell and breezy choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, moves the action to the 1930s. The final image is a bit much, when the arena spins and the bull Escamillo has just killed is shown in what appears to be a comparison with Carmen's body outside the entrance.

There are five more performances through Oct. 18, and the production returns with some cast changes for seven more outings from Feb. 9 to March 1. The Feb. 23 matinee will be broadcast on radio.