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Ensemble cast sizzles in Teatro Lirico's 'Carmen'

The Teatro Lirico D'Europa ran into some bad luck in January with a performance of Puccini's ''La Boheme" that failed to ignite. But last night's performance of Bizet's ''Carmen" really cooked.

Credit for that goes to the company's excellent Bulgarian ensemble of chorus and orchestra, and to two Americans in the starring roles. Kirstin Chavez, one of the alternating Carmens, has sung the role at the New York City Opera. She's physically and vocally limber, and revels in her femme-fatale looks. She has a bright lyric mezzo with a strong top, and sings with many a teasing, personal, and humorous inflection. She can play the castanets, and she acts up a storm, while always keeping her place in the ensemble effort -- the smuggler's quintet was delightful. The Card Song was her only weak moment because the lighting made it hard to see her eyes at the fateful moment when she turns over the cards and reads her own death. Afterwards she rose to the challenge of the final scene; Carmen thought she had faced Don Jose down; then he surprised her with the knife.

Tenor Jeffrey Springer has a strong, tireless voice with good high notes. He was stiff at first, but Don Jose is supposed to be uptight, and he wasn't helped by big hair that made him look disconcertingly like John Kerry. He got better as the performance progressed and his desperation, despair, and degeneration were palpable.

The Teatro Lirico's ingenue, Veselina Vasileva, brought fervor and gleaming high notes to the usually pallid role of Micaela, although she did not invariably phrase with ideal smoothness. Vladimir Samsonov was the swaggering toreador Escamillo; his very peculiar French made his voice sound pinched. Still, he seemed to be having fun leaping onto a table and acted with a supreme self-congratulation that fits the character -- he didn't even get flustered when he and the orchestra parted ways at one point.

Most of the subsidiary parts were not cast from strength, but Viara Zhelezova unleashed a formidable sound as Mercedes, and the smugglers were terrific -- the company's wonderful character actor Hristo Sarafov and Giorgio Dineff, who looked like Colin Farrell in one of his unshaven campy crook roles. The chorus poured tone that left the ears ringing, and the orchestra did some elegant work for conductor Krassimir Topolov, who kept things moving along in a stylish way, despite a couple of cuts, like the children's chorus in the opening scene.

Valentine Topencharov's touring set -- a brick wall with some side pieces to suggest different locales -- was serviceable, and company founder Giorgio Lalov's simple, sensible production gave his stars plenty of leeway to do their own thing.

Next season Teatro Lirico offers four operas -- ''The Barber of Seville," ''Die Fledermaus," ''Lucia di Lammermoor," and ''The Magic Flute."

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