Even for such a perennial favorite, ''Carmen'' is enjoying a banner year. Here in New York there have been two stage productions: the New York City Opera's mounting of the traditional Georges Bizet opera and Peter Brook's radically innovative Paris version, which has relighted the long-dark Vivian Beaumont Theater. Spanish film director Carlos Seura's ''Carmen'' (a modern-day treatment of the theme) has been playing locally for several weeks.
''La Tragedie de Carmen,'' as Mr. Brook calls it, begins with a novel touch. The conductor (Marius Constant at the performance I attended) and the 14 members of his orchestra enter from the rear of the auditorium. They walk single file down a right-hand aisle and thread their way through the two rows of spectators seated on cushions at the edge of the thrust stage. The musicians cross the earth-covered playing area and disappear into the wings of Jean-Guy Lecat's wood-paneled setting. That is the most populous ensemble stage effect of the evening.
To the accompaniment of a solo viola, a huge bundle of ragged clothes at center stage begins to stir. When Don Jose and Micaela appear, a hand reaches out from the bundle proffering a fortune teller's card. The overture is rejected. In Brook's first theatrical surprise, Carmen suddenly emerges from the rag heap. The gypsy goes immediately to work on the susceptible Don Jose in front of an outraged Micaela, the plucky country girl who has come seeking the young soldier with a message from his mother.
The director thus peremptorily plunges his characters into the hurly-burly of fatal conflicts he and his collaborators have arranged from the Meilhac-Halevy libretto, the 1845 Prosper Merimee novella, and the irresistible Bizet score. Without choruses or crowd scenes, ''La Tragedie de Carmen'' concentrates on the principals of the tale: Carmen, Don Jose, Micaela, and the bullfighter Escamillo.
The Brook amalgam retains the favorite arias and melodies from the ''Carmen'' hit parade - although not always in their original order. (My colleague Thor Eckert Jr. will deal with the musical aspects of the production in a subsequent Monitor article.) A theater reviewer may observe that Brook employs the occasional spoken dialogue of opera comique, including one speech in more or less understandable English.
With his usual flair, Brook uses bold visual effects and physical action to enhance the theatricalism of this spare, compressed treatment. For instance, Don Jose leashes the arrested Carmen with a very long rope - a manacle she manipulates as easily as she corrupts her supposed captor. Who is tethered to whom? When Carmen wants to beat time, she breaks a plate and uses the pieces for percussion.
Such are the devices by which the adapters focus on what Brook calls ''the core'' of a more than century-old classic even as they condense it to an uninterrupted 82-minute playing time. Everything contributes to the drive of the tragedy, including the fateful throbbings of the kettledrums. The stage fights are, as the action demands, rough, wounding, and lethal. The dusty soil covering is used in various ways - sifted through an actor's outstretched fingers, hurled by the fistful as a quick weapon, and doused on the aforementioned fires as an extinguisher. Of all the visual elements, Chloe Obolensky's costumes are perhaps the most muted.
The Parisian import at the Beaumont casts the principal roles with four singers (with rotating casts for the eight performances a week: four Carmens and Don Joses, three Escamillos and Micaelas). There are two speaking parts. At the preview I attended, the portrayals were strong vocally and histrionically.
Eva Saurova, a statuesque Carmen, progressed from the impudent wantonness of the early scenes to the quiet resignation of a woman who knows she cannot escape her fate. The recklessness with which Laurence Dale pursued the course of the passion-besotted army deserter made one feel that this tale was also the tragedy of Don Jose. Veronique Dietschy sang with great purity, personifying a Micaela of strength as well as innocence. Carl Johan Falkman provided some of Brook's humorous touches as a fatally overconfident Escamillo.
The audience responded with the warmest enthusiasm. Recalling the cast repeatedly with their applause, the spectators reaffirmed both Carmen's and Peter Brook's capacity to captivate the public.