Evelyn Lear's Carmen in Baltimore on Monday night sounded and looked so right that it is hard to imagine why the great singing actress delayed so long to add the role to her repertoire.

Singing with the Baltimore Opera Company, Lear, famous for her magnificent portrayals of such operatic sex symbols as Lulu, Poppaea, and Cleopatra, refused to throw herself around the way many do. She presented, rather, a woman with a strong personality, held within the grip of fate.

She limned a Carmen of subtle suggestion, seductive movement and entrapping song. She continually paid attention to many men on the stage, by no means confining herself either to Don Jose' or Escamillo, though these were the two whose ultimate rivalry brought about her death. Her dancing was as restrained as her body English, but by the time she reached the final confrontation with Jose', she had filled in every detail of a powerful portrait.

The role works beautifully for Lear's voice, at least until the last desperate exchange which lies in the lower register of every soprano's range. Here Lear scored points by the conviction of her challenge to Jose' to kill her or let her pass. Few Carmens have sung the part with this kind of musicianship and vocal skill . The Seguidilla was entrancing and the gypsy song at the opening of Act II would have been brilliant had the conducting of Anton Coppola burned with a hotter fire. The Card Scene, superbly prepared by Lear, became the pivotal point Bizet intended, with Jose' looming ominously over Carmen at its conclusion.

Had Lear's colleagues matched her skills, the production would have been memorable. But Coppola conducted in a wooden, routine manner except at those times when Lear's singing elicited something better.

It is well that no one received credit for the stage set, a clumsy affair with eight steps everyone had to run up and down in all four acts. There was no sign of a bullring and the last act's procession of picadors, matadors, toreadors and municipal officials was pathetic. "Carmen" is one of the world's masterpieces. It is also terribly difficult to successfully present. Baltimore usually achieves a finer level than it managed this time.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is on strike, played without renumeration. To reciprocate, the opera company made a contribution of $29,000 to the musicians' welfare fund.