Here's how Peter Sellars describes his latest television spectacular: "There's a rape and a murder in the first 90 seconds of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' ... It's probably the greatest opera ever written. ... 'Don Giovanni' is an opera that, 200 years later, we're still struggling to try to understand."

With or without the hype, Sellars's street-tough, modernized "Don Giovanni" is worth watching (on "Great Performances," 3 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 26). The performances are dramatically compelling, the voices are good, and Sellars's direction frequently gives fresh insights into the characters and the dynamics of the opera. It will be most interesting to those who know the opera well and enjoy a fresh view of familiar material. It probably should not be the first or the only "Don Giovanni" one sees because it misrepresents the opera, pushing legitimate elements to extremes.

Consider the subtitles, for example. Early in the first scene, Don Giovanni tells a victim "Donna folle! Indarno gridi!" ("Foolish woman! Your screams are in vain.") That is translated to "Shut up, bitch!" The richness of 18th-century Italian epithets and the poverty of current English profanity can be deduced from the variety of words that are translated as "bastard" in the first few scenes: scellerato (villain); barbaro (barbarian); empio (impious person); mostro, felon, nido d'inganni (monster, felon, {serpent's} nest of deceptions). There are also simple mistranslations; for example, speziali (apothecaries) is translated as "specialists."

Sellars's hype exaggerates the speed of the opera's opening, even in his fast-moving production. The first 90 seconds of "Don Giovanni" are given not to rape and murder but to the overture, which lasts more than five minutes. Then Leporello's aria about how he doesn't want to be a servant anymore goes for almost two minutes more. Then, finally, the rape (about 90 seconds), followed by the murder (two minutes). That's fast by operatic standards, but those who stay tuned after his opening pitch, expecting instant gratification, should be prepared to wait a bit.

His superlatives about the opera's greatness and depth are on target. One may even accept provisionally Sellars's suggestion that one of its themes is "the upper classes' need to rape the lower classes," although Donna Anna, the rape victim, is of Giovanni's own class, and the subject is seduction, not rape, when he comes on to the lower-class Zerlina. The fact that Sellars's Don Giovanni is black, his Donna Anna white and his Zerlina Chinese presumably has no thematic relevance; at least it doesn't echo what he says about class relationships.

Whatever his qualifications for judging the opera's themes and historic precedents, Sellars knows how to inject vitality into a classic script. This "Don Giovanni" is brought up to the present and set on the streets of the South Bronx. The staging gives fresh impact to many scenes. For Giovanni's party in Act 1, supplies are stolen from a neighborhood store. His solitary dinner in Act 2, usually staged as a lavish feast, is reduced to a hamburger and a thick shake consumed on a sidewalk, out of a paper bag, while a boom box takes the place of the usual onstage wind ensemble.

There has been endless discussion among scholars and opera fans over whether the attempted rape in Act 1 was successful. Sellars removes that doubt; his Donna Anna has obviously been raped before her father rushes to her aid and is killed. Instead of the swordplay that is usual at this point, Sellars has Don Giovanni pull out a gun, calmly shoot the father, then turn away, coolly lighting a cigarette. At the end, the murder victim comes back looking not like an animated statue (as he should) but like a corpse that has dug its way out of the grave.

There are no weak spots in the cast; the strongest performers, musically and dramatically, are the twin brothers Eugene and Herbert Perry (Giovanni and Leporello). Soprano Ai Lan Zhu sings and acts the role of Zerlina beautifully, virtually stealing the show. Conductor Craig Smith gets solid performances from the cast, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.