Public television has a rootin', tootin' "Carmen" tonight -- the 1978 Vienna State Opera production staged, and directed for television, by Franco Zeffirelli. Musical questions aside, what's astounding is the visual splendor and texture that Zeffirelli achieved even though shooting a live performace.

In fact, the opera -- to be seen at 8 tonight on Channel 26 -- puts most of the American "Live from the Met" productions to shame. For one thing, you can actually hear the singers above the sounds of the orchestra in the pit and the footsteps on the stage. For another, the quality of camera work is inspired; you almost never see live TV shots this masterfully composed.

Zeffirelli didn't paste his "Carmen" together with fancy post-production tinkering. It is a faithful record of a performance, as verified by the errant shot of an extra glimpsed in the wings or the grand entrance of a picador who, oops, drops his cape.

The stalwart Placido Domingo plays that poor shmoe Don Jose and Elena Obraztsova -- looking, peculiarly enough, a bit like Barbara Walters -- is the fatally flirtatious Carmen in this production of George Bizet's work, a masterpiece strewn with hit tunes and encumbered, like most operas, with a delightfully ludicrous tragic plot. It's less an opera than a circus, really, and Zeffirelli stages it spectacularly.

American public TV hands have intervened where possible, of course, cluttering the picture with translating subtitles -- forgivable since they make the work that more accessible. But it was not necessary to introduce each of the four acts with lengthy exposition over taped excerpts, any more than it is necessary for the insufferable blabbermouth Martin Bookspan to begin yammering the instant the curtain even threatens to come down. It's as if they hired a Top 40 deejay for the job.

A spokesman for Channel 26 says the broadcast will be delayed only briefly for fund pitches tonight and that there will be interruptions for additional fund-raising between acts one and two and acts two and three. This is part of the public TV philosophy that says we must suffer for our art.