A riveting new way to tell Carmen's tale

Prosper Merimee's ''Carmen'' has fascinated the creative artists in the performing arts almost from the day the novella was published. The story has been the subject of opera, ballets, films, plays. Of course, its most prestigious incarnation is the Bizet opera. But of late, Peter Brook has been giving Bizet a run for his money with ''La Tragedie de Carmen,'' which is now enjoying tremendous success at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center.

It has been generally well received by the critics, although some have been hostile because of the way Brook and his musical adviser, Marius Constant, have pruned and rearranged the Bizet score to suit the director's needs. A few critics have decried it as a mere stunt, but most have found it at least interesting, with many calling it supremely theatrical.

In my Nov. 30 column I addressed the issue of the caliber of acting in the show and how it contrasts to what is often seen on an opera stage. The intimacy and intensity of the one-on-one acting on stage proved haunting at both the performances I saw, with two completely different casts.

What had somewhat disturbed me at the first encounter was the dismembering of Bizet. The second time around satisfied me that Brook had not done anything disrespectful, rather he had fashioned his own telling of the Merimee story and chosen to use Bizet as the narrative context, with numerous emendations and certain scenes created out of Brookian whole cloth.

What is it that has fascinated people about Carmen down the years? I am not talking about the Rita Hayworth/Glenn Ford movie ''The Loves of Carmen'' (1948), or the Oscar Hammerstein II film - ''Carmen Jones'' (1954) - although they have certainly contributed to the Carmen lore. Rather, I think of Bizet's librettists , who took an amoral gypsy wench who destroys Don Jose, and turned her into an archetypal gypsy: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy had the challenge of taking a character the audiences at the Opera Comique were bound to find distasteful, and win them over.

They have given her a convenient morality: Carmen is faithful to her paramours until the moment she stops loving them. Bizet gave her life, depth, mystery, allure. Don Jose - whom Carmen lures away from his duties as soldier - ceased to be the central character of the story, and Micaela, the peasant girl he forsakes, was invented to be the wholesome embodiment of simple virtue. Don Jose's rival for Carmen - Escamillo - was promoted from picador to toreador. And , unless one has had any sort of encounter with the original Merimee story, the Bizet Carmen is the one apt to be known.

Perhaps this is why some are unsettled by coming into the Beaumont, with a dirt floor stage, five characters, Bizet's music, and a story that captures the more naturalistic, occasionally sordid flavor of Merimee's novella.

But is that side of Merimee well suited to Bizet's music? I think not, even though Brook makes no attempt to say that his ''Tragedie de Carmen'' is an improvement on Bizet. Brook in no way tries to make this the opera Bizet would have written in a less restrictive era. And in 82 minutes, we are treated to a riveting sample of expert storytelling with fine acting, adequate singing, and some haunting visual effects.

Brook does not use the music to underline the plot development. And by the snip-and-sew treatment it receives, there is no continuity left to the score anyway.

Bizet loses his status as a dramatic master. Curiously, the Carlos Saura dance movie ''Carmen'' does the same thing. The flavor of Bizet is eschewed in favor of Merimee's original, earthier vision.

Bizet's Carmen sings in dance forms - sometimes actually dancing, other times merely insinuating on a dance rhythm - and in those dances her true moods and character emerge. The Carmen of Brook's creation all but emerges from a garbage heap at the beginning of the performance (under a cover, as an amorphous blob) to invoke gypsy superstitions and rituals, and also to warn Micaela not to go near Don Jose.

In several cases Brook/Constant actually alters the context of Bizet's important scenes. Don Jose sings his ''Flower Song'' as a soliloquy, not as a confession to his beloved; Micaela sings her aria as a confrontation piece, not a soliloquy. It is details like this that have made music critics demure a bit. But since nowhere has he stated that this is what Bizet should have written, we are safe to sit back and let this 82 minutes unfold tautly, spellbindingly, with great theatrical flair. But a look to the future could include a rash of imitators tampering with Mozart, late Verdi, or Wagner, bringing opera to smaller houses, with smaller orchestras, and really very little sensitivity to what the original masterpiece represented in the first place.

If no one else jumps on that idea, then one will be able to appreciate the Brook fully for what it is - a hybrid evening's entertainment that attempts to make a new form of music theater, where singers (singing in a foreign language) treat the musical line as speech (but then again, that is the ideal in the opera house as well) and communicate moods and attitudes to all receptive members of the audience.

It might be interesting to encounter Mr. Brook in an opera house again someday. Until then, this is not really an example of what to expect from opera, but it is a captivating theatrical experience.

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