could use a little heat.

A few weeks ago, Alan Gilbert, the Santa Fe Opera's music director and conductor of the


that just opened the company's season, talked about a discovery he'd recently made in the opera's score. At significant moments during the


piece, Bizet's musical expression flatly contradicts the text he's illustrating. For example, while the words of the soldiers' opening chorus, "Sur la place," suggest boredom, even frustration, with their seemingly pointless job, Bizet's music gallops chirpily along. Later in the act in her "Habanera," Carmen sings that love is as untamable as a wild bird, but there's nothing swift or avian about the aria's galumphing orchestral accompaniment.

Gilbert said that these contradictions led him to find and feel the musical "pulse" of the opera. In the current production, there's pulsation aplenty. Gilbert leads a nuanced, symphonic reading of the score rather in the manner of Bernstein's 1973 account, occasional surprising tempos included. As has been his custom in the SFO pit, Gilbert lets us hear subtleties we never suspected were there.

He's more than matched onstage by Anne Sofie von Otter's stunning vocal performance as Carmen-equally nuanced, subtle and passionate. It's as elegantly phrased and dramatically convincing a reading as you're likely to hear, light-years separated from her over-directed, over-the-top Carmen at Glyndebourne four years ago.

If only the work of von Otter and Gilbert were matched by the other participants in this drab, ugly production. It says much that the most dynamic male performance of the


evening comes from apprentice artist David J Giuliano in a minor role as the smuggler Le Dancaïre. As an oafish Don José, William Joyner sings with power but little expression and acts as if he's trapped in a 19th century melodrama. David Pittsinger's uncharismatic Escamillo displayed serious intonation problems opening night. On the brighter side, Jennifer Black made a focused, forthright impression as Micaëla.

It's hard to fathom why director Lars Rudolfsson placed the action in circa '60's Franco-fascist Spain. He makes no significant political point, except that its atmosphere then tended toward stale, flat and unprofitable. That pretty much sums up the visual qualities of the charmless, low-budget


and its looming, brutal set by Neil Patel. Sullen cigarette girls decline to flirt. Drunken louts stumble through the "Chanson bohême" at Lillas Pastias' sordid watering hole. We have to take the chorus' word for it that there's a glamorous procession of


parading into the Plaza de Toros, because the audience gets nary a glimpse.

Still, all those Sevillean street urchins seem to be having a swell time.