The New York City Opera is doing so much right these days, it seems a pity that the nationwide telecast tonight of its new production of Bizet's ''Carmen'' will not be representative of that best.
But more of that later in this column. Right now I wish to focus on one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent with the City Opera in many a season - the David Hockney-designed production of Stravinsky's ''The Rake's Progress,'' with an unusually strong cast.
As Stravinsky turned to William Hogarth for his inspiration, so too did Hockney, allowing for delectable stylization and sly tongue in cheek humor. At no time do the sets overpower the music. Indeed, the sets give the music a strong visual counterpart, and they also make it quite simple for a director to have a grand success. When the look of a production is so firmly established as this one is, it is a relatively easy thing for a stage director to make the performers fit in well.
On the basis of what is being seen in New York, John Cox's direction - first seen at the Glyndebourne Festival - was probably little more than elegant stage management, but it must have had its share of tart stylization originally. Unfortunately, Robin Thompson, credited with the re-creation here, seemed incapable of getting the entire cast to look all of a piece. Each principal seemed content to be doing his or her thing, while the chorus work was singularly sloppy all evening long. But at least, thanks to Hockney, the evening had a genuine texture, a flavor, and a consistency of viewpoint that the basic blocking never overshadowed.
The cast was particularly well chosen from the cream of the City Opera roster. Jerry Hadley's Tom Rakewell - around whom the opera unfolds - was ideal in presence and voice. He acts with disarming naturalness, sings with uncommon finesse, and declaims with startlingly clear diction, in a role that is not always written to allow for clear enunciation. Erie Mills made Anne Truelove a vital figure, and she used her small, silvery soprano to fine effect throughout the opera. Her final scene with Tom proved particularly touching. Frederick Burchinal was a very good Nick Shadow, and Harry Dworchak a forthright, sonorous father Truelove.
In the pit, Christopher Keene seemed content to beat time, to let things trip along at quite a clip, with very little plasticity of phrasing; the chorus had audible problems following him throughout the evening.
The ''Carmen,'' which is being telecast ''Live From Lincoln Center'' tonight on PBS (check local listings) suffers from a fatal concept flaw. Frank Corsaro has pushed the action ahead to the Spanish Civil War, circa 1936. Once he has established this gimmick, he does very little to really make it work. True, there is a lot of fighting. Don Jose is beaten up at least five times; guns get fired loudly throughout the evening, often for no particular reason except to startle; but the characters are not made to fit neatly into this concept. Here we have Carmen, a real revolutionary, a total anti-Fascist, falling for Escamillo, a toreador who is not only a cheap hood but is the darling of those hated Fascists. For some reason, it is imperative to the success of the revolutionaries that Carmen snag Don Jose, although we are never given a clue as to why. An offstage assassination ends the opera, but there is no hint as to who is being murdered. Music is cut which Mr. Corsaro could clearly not make fit into his ''concept,'' but no mention of this is made in the program.
The number of times Corsaro's ideas conflict with the specific words or the mood of the music indicates that he has not done his homework well enough: At no point does all the anti-Fascist parading and terrorizing fit in any way with Bizet's score. When Escamillo and Carmen are wheeled in on a podium complete with radio microphones in the last act, we are no longer in Seville, but in Broadway's ''Evita,'' just before ''Don't Cry for Me, Argentina.'' Nor is there anything drab green-and-gray about Bizet's music, yet those are the colors Franco Colavecchia has chosen for his basic unit set of drops and hangings. (What a difference between Colavecchia and Hockney in terms of hearing a color in the music and reflecting it in the design.)
With the exception of Marianna Christos's sensitively, richly sung Micaela, there was not one good voice on the stage. At least Victoria Vergara can act. In fact, she is the best Carmen to grace the City Opera stage in a good long time. Her sultry, kittenish siren could be alarmingly seductive, but never trampish. Nevertheless, Miss Vergara is a Carmen constantly in search of pitch and of a well-supported, rounded vocal tone. Jacque Trussel's tenor has never sounded so precarious, nor has his acting been so staunchly one-dimensional. At least Robert Hale's Escamillo was honorable. Much of the French diction was shockingly poor.
Conductor Keene's metronomic gallop through the pages of Bizet's remarkable score never once gave a hint that this music is meant to be sung. And his arbitary inclusion of a scant few fragments of music from the Fritz Oeser edition of Bizet's score jarred at all times.
Granted, the ''Carmen'' production this Corsaro effort replaces was one of the low points of City Opera stagings. But Mr. Corsaro has not given us a rethinking that casts any new light on the action, but rather one that will look dated only a few seasons from now. On every count, this production is not one that will show off the City Opera to anything like its best advantage; several other operas - the above-cited ''Rake'' being the most noteworthy - would have done better for TV.