Carmen" is the hottest story of the 1980s -- or at least the one that is now reaching the most audiences in the most varied forms. Tonight on the Arts and Entertainment Network (8 p.m.; repeated at midnight), it will reach the cable public in one of its most powerful embodiments: Peter Brook's film, "La Trage'die de Carmen," based on his hybrid adaptation for the nonoperatic stage. This is the second of four films Brook has made of his production, using different performers, camera techniques and details of staging. It is a strong contender for attention, even in competition with the film "Bizet's Carmen" with Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes Johnson; Jean-Luc Godard's surreal modern adaption "First Name: Carmen" and the dance version produced by Antonio Gades.
Those who love Georges Bizet's opera of erotic manipulation, tormented passions and sudden, violent death will readily recognize in this version the contours of the "Carmen" they know. And they are likely to feel a strange intensification of its unique power. At the same time, they may feel disoriented. This Carmen (powerfully portrayed by He'le ne Delavault) has a life of her own, clearly related to her operatic counterpart, but different in many subtle and not so subtle ways. She is not particularly beautiful, but she is suffused with an intense aura of sexuality, which she knows exactly how to use for her purposes.
Those who have studied the opera closely know already that Carmen is a practicing witch, but in Brook's adaptation, this element is brought out much more clearly than usual. Witchcraft, not tobacco, is this Carmen's profession; she is shown not only reading her own destiny in the tarot cards but also casting spells and telling fortunes for a living. In Brook's realistic staging, Carmen is a bit earthier than most operatic embodiments of the role -- but, by the same token, she loses some of the larger-than-life impression she can make in an operatic context. Carmen is always a force of nature: Eros -- greedy, violent and heedless of all law or restraint. On the screen, she becomes a more clearly defined individual but loses none of her archetypal power.
There are also changes in the plot. For example, the bullfighter Escamillo (Jake Gardner) is carried out of the arena dead, in a striking scene near the end. And Carmen has a husband (or something similar) named Garcia, who interrupts her and Jose' (Howard Hensel) during their tryst in the mountain camp insisting, "Je suis son homme; elle m'appartient" ("I am her man; she belongs to me"). A duel follows, and Jose' kills Garcia; as always, he is a bit of a wimp where Carmen is concerned, but he is also capable of killing, and this episode makes the bloody final scene more credible.
Micaela (Agne's Host) is gutsier than she usually seems in the opera -- a peasant girl out of place in Seville but ready to fight for what she wants. In this adaptation, the fight in the cigarette factory becomes instead a direct confrontation between Micaela and Carmen, in which Carmen pulls out a knife and carves an X on Micaela's forehead.
Brook has eliminated quite a few characters (including the whole chorus), tightened and intensified the plot, dropped much of the music and rearranged what is left to suit his own purposes. He also has added and effectively used the kind of close-up realism available only with movie cameras. This is a "Carmen" more readily accessible than Bizet's opera for mass audiences of our time. The dialogue is spoken in French (with useful subtitles), and the singing is generally good, though one could have done better if the casting had been based purely on vocal ability. Instead, Brook has obviously looked for people who can act, with results that enhance the theatrical power of his production. Besides those mentioned above, note should be taken of Alain Maratrat, who significantly enlarges the role of Lilas Pastia.