It has been the custom of the New York City Opera to withhold its best efforts from many of the staples of the repertory-the "La Bohemes," the "Butterflys" and the "Carmens."

For splendid opera from the company one has looked to Boito's "Mefistofele" or Handel's "Julius Caesar" or just about anything else that the younger Beverly Sills had within her range.

Thus it was more a pleasure Sunday night to hear a better "Carmen" from the City Opera than one has come to expect-one that will be repeated tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center.

Of course, the central issue in any production is how well the title role is sung. In this case, the answer is that with Ann Howard it is lush and sensual. Howard's is not the neurotic, possessed Carmen of a Callas. She is more like the vamp of a Rise Stevens.

Next in importance is the tenor lead, Don Jose. Jacque Trussel gave one a similar choice.As light tenors go he sang the role with purity and commitment.

In the two other principal parts, Elizabeth Hynes sang a more lyric Micaela than most heard recently from the Met. But as the toreador, Escamillo, Richard Fredericks fell short of that standard.

Conductor Imre Pallo got vibrant playing from the orchestra, but had trouble keeping together with the chorus.