PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2000, 12:00am

Carmen La Cuadra de Sevilla Cultural Centre Grand Theatre March 3 Carmen, as most of us know it, fills seats: it's a familiar prospect, picturesque, romantic. Carmen herself may be a little dangerous but hey she's a good-time girl, dangerous, clever, trouble.

Salvador Tavora takes great objection to the tale we have grown up with. It is not the version he was told in Andalusia, in his childhood, by his grandmother.

It shames his people. So the dramatic flamenco version audiences have been queued up to see here, his answer to the tame legend, was not only much darker. It shrieked Andalusia.

In the blackout of the opening moments, on a stage barely lit, shrill bugles were the first shock. They grated through much of the show, soon matched by wailing song - martinetes, deblas and tonas - in vernacular Andalusian, in an opera that was about freedom and traditions as much as it was about blood, pain and cruelty.

All for a clean sweep, Tavora did away with all but a minute or two of Bizet's Carmen and chose singers and guitars to bring the music you hear in the dusty squares of the villages around Seville, a three packets of cigarettes a day too many sound.

His Carmen (Lalo Tejada) championed women, a working cigarrera who was not afraid to shock, a woman of great strength. Her soldier lover (Marco Vargas) eventually kills her when she falls in love with a picador. His military honour is offended as much by her independence as her behaviour.

Love was not sweet here, it was a more elemental thing, full of lust and fear. Death was always present, the dances often referring to the knife embedded in the stage from the beginning.

Anyone who has seen the front of the Arts Festival's programme knows this is the show with the horse. Koala burst onto the stage (ridden by Jaime de la Puerta) overwhelmed by the crowd and the costumes, valiantly going through most of its paces to a blast of Bizet. The grey was more than a gimmick. It was a signal that Tavora had thrown every element of his homeland, from the parades of fine horses in the spring to the at this production. His Carmen was two hours of compelling passion.