Lincoln Center's controversial and long-neglected Beaumont Theater is brilliantly fulfilled by Peter Brook's fascinating production, "La Tragedie de Carmen," which opened there last evening. An 80-minute distillation, in the form of a chamber opera, of the customary three-hour grand-opera version of Bizet's masterpiece, it is utterly intoxicating.
Brook, who put it together in his Paris workshop and then presented it in that city last year for a sizable run followed by a lengthy European tour, has restored some of the harsher and more lurid elements of the Prosper Merimee novel that Bizet's proficient librettists, Meilhac and Halevy, excised in order to soften the work (but not sufficiently, as it happened) for the conventional tastes of the Opera Comique audience. For "Carmen," with spoken dialogue between musical numbers, was the late 19th-century equivalent of what we call a musical. In fact, it wasn't until 1959 that it made the Paris Opera.
While "Carmen" has long been one of the most popular of all operas ("Aida," "La Boheme" and "Carmen" constitute the Met's ABC of hit operas), and has often been called "the perfect opera," there is no denying that it tends to drag at times, especially in the third of its four acts, in the innumerable routine performances it endures in the hope that its sock numbers will put it across.
The original production and on many occasions since then, particularly in Paris, the recitative that Guirard added after Bizet's early death in order to create a musical whole (for the original production, etc.), has been discarded in favor of added dramatic incisiveness, but never before could the work have been unfolded in sparer terms than this.
Four singers, three speaking parts and a huge thrust stage covered, discounting a few props now and then, solely with "dirt" - brown with reddish areas tapering off into gray rubble, the whole giving a sunbaked blood-and-sand effect. Dead center - what appears to be a bundle of rags until a hand slips out to present a playing card to the passing Don Jose, then to reach for the hand of the newly arrived Micaela to read its fortune, and then to sweep aside the covering to reveal the wanton, amoral, cruel, impetuously loving, mercurial - well, Carmen.
From that moment on, events proceed swiftly, and although along the general - indeed, inevitable - lines of the grand opera, not with the same details. The spectacle, panoply, chorus numbers - even quintets and trios - are dispensed with as, through the irresistible set pieces for solo and duet, we move rapidly, but songfully, through the four acts with minor prop changes - a throw rug, a few rude wood chairs, a few burlap sacks bunched together to make a pallet for Jose and Carmen.
And instead of the one murder - Carmen's at the finish, with a sudden knife thrust as the music of the "habanera" is softly intoned again (in Jose's mind, of course) to fade out with the lights - there are now four. First, Jose's superior officer, Lt. Zuniga, is throttled by the lovesick country boy when he discovers Zuniga has been having it on with Carmen (Lillas Pastia, by the way, functions as both an innkeeper, briefly addressing us in English for an amusing few moments, and Carmen's pimp). Then, when Carmen's husband, Garcia (a figure omitted in the Meilhac-Halevy libretto), turns up, Jose polishes him off with the leg knife he'll eventually plunge into Carmen's back. And Escamillo, rather than triumphing in the ring to the cheers of the crowd, is - well, not murdered, but gored to death by the bull. The point being that even his death (his splendidly caparisoned body is carried aloft across stage) can't make Carmen yield to Jose's supplications.
Brook's staging, ranging from the highly dramatic to the highly farcical (there are even two doors, one either side, and with nothing behind them, for slambang entrances and exits), is so explicit, whether tender or lubricious, that, thank heavens, no translation is required for music that sings properly only in French. Even the dialogue passages, most of them underscored by the 14-piece, partially hidden (depending on where one is seated), orchestra, are so staged and acted as to be perfectly clear to the uninitiated.
And what of the casts, and the Carmens in particular? I saw three during the week of press previews, and the emphasis, of course, especially in what would constitute the first act, was on Carmen's unfettered eroticism, the natural animal, seductive, even salacious, in every glance, gesture and movement.
Though the Czech mezzo Eva Saurova was by far the handsomest of the three seen, and even the most assured vocally, her neatly coiffed auburn hair and teasing, but not especially arousing, behavior, made her less effective, in some ways, than the sluttish-looking and even slatternly Cynthia Clarey and Emily Golden whom I caught first, in that order. The Don Joses were only adequate in a chamber-music sense, which I suppose was sufficient under the circumstances, though I rather regretted the repeated use of falsetto by one of them, however smoothly it was used. Similarly, there wasn't a first-rate Escamillo in the bunch. But Veronique Dietschy was easily the outstanding Micaela, her "Jedis" begun at the top of an aisle and ending with some harmonized observations by Carmen. Alain Maratrat was the wonderfully entertaining Lillas Pastia at all three performances, and Jean-Paul Denizon, another accomplished actor, made an excellent Zuniga at two of them. Again, though, I hate to criticize the vocalism, for all the singing was marvelously clear coming from that large stage so near to us and with the finely modulated orchestra conducted by Marius Constant.
"La Tragedie de Carmen" is not intended as a substitute for "Carmen," just as a new look at a great work. It is surely a transcendent "musical," and such a brilliant piece of theater that if I were to see it every week, which I wish I could, I'd consider this otherwise largely lackluster Broadway musical season one of the best ever.
The most exciting show on Broadway is not precisely a show and may not be exactly on Broadway. It is Peter Brook's La Tragedie de Carmen at Lincoln Center's temporarily born-again Vivian Beaumont.
Shatteringly iconoclastic yet deeply moving, this is a redefinition of Bizet's opera, variations on themes by the composer Georges Bizet, and his collaborators, and Carmen's original creator, that fussy old French novelist, Prosper Merimee.
There is plenty of blood, guts and passion to Brook's new Carmen, but that is not what it is about. It is a clash of temperament and a ritual of predestined death.
Brook's view of Carmen - and here we should mention at the outset his principal collaborators, the composer Marius Constant and the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere - is essentially a harmony of contrasts.
Artistically there is the contrast between the divine prettiness and melodramatic beauty of Bizet's score, and the earthy tale of lust and murder. There is also the tension inherent in Merimee's original story contrasting the liberated gypsy life, with its own conventions circling life and death, and the straight world represented by the rigid Don Jose.
The character of Carmen - that wild bird of love - has passed into 20th Century mythology. And Bizet's music - from the Habanera to the Toreador's Song - is virtually part of everyone's musical subconsciousness, it is rhapsodized in the Musak of our instinctive memories.
Brook and his friends, under, surprisingly enough, the auspices of the Paris Opera and at the Opera's express invitation, have stripped Bizet down to basics.
The dramatic heart of Bizet's Carmen is the gypsy Carmen herself, Don Jose the soldier who falls for her with headlong madness, the arrogant matador Escamillo who wins Carmen's love, and the country girl Micaela, symbol of purity.
This is the basic Carmen - this is the drama and the passion of Carmen. Of course, on to this structures has been grafted choruses, marches, ballets and all the paraphernalia of grand opera, or, more authentically in this case, grand opera comique, a slightly different convention that used spoken dialogue.
Miraculously Brook has got his singers to act. And I do not mean act in any operatic convention - I mean act. They cannot see the conductor - they have really had to learn the score - and some of the audience is within two feet of them, literally squatting at their feet.
Our music critic, Harriett Johnson, will comment later on the production's musical aspects, including the actual singing, so here, suffice it to say, that musically Marius Constant has done a remarkable job of surgery leaving the body healthy and surprisingly intact.
Much has been made of the new work's brevity - a hectic, emotion-packed 82 minutes, compared with the opera, which usually lasts about three hours. However, remember that the biggest cut here is not the music but the three 20-minute intermissions that split the music up.
This is Carmen in a sandpit surrounded by a bare-wooded stockade. The scenery is a few sacks and carpets, the costumes - with the sole exception of Escamillo's encounter with death in the afternoon - are purposefully drab.
Just as Bizet's librettists reshaped Merimee's novel, so Brook has slightly reshaped Bizet's libretto. Micaela and Escamillo (in Mereimee, Carmen's lover was a humbler picador named Lucas) are retained.
However, Brook's version is altogether more violent. Micaela is made into Carmen's active antagonist (in a realistic brawl Carmen bloodies her with a knife), Jose murders his superior officer, Zuniga, and at the end Escamillo dies in the bull ring.
Brook also has taken some things in from the novel - Carmen's first husband Garcia, killed by the brutalized Jose, and also a few odd details, such as Carmen breaking a plate to make impromptu castanets, of Jose finally executing Carmen with Garcia's knife.
Dramatically the work explodes in lightning flashes of illumination: Carmen humorously playing with a cigar as if it were a phallic symbol, Escamillo pouring orange juice down Carmen's throat, Garcia collapsing dead like a sack of potatoes.
And always, hanging over the production like a sword gleaming through a cloud, is the sense of gypsy ritual, gypsy destiny and gypsy doom. For this Carmen, death is the predestined, ultimate lover.
The Beaumont's acoustics for both the singing and the surprisingly effective chamber orchestra are remarkably good. The vocal demands on the actors are strictly operatic, so, as a result, this Carmen has five casts.
In four performances, I have caught four Carmens, three Don Joses, two Micaelas, two Lillas Pastias, two Zunigas and one Garcia. Bascially, and this is a tribute to the actors as much as to Brook, the casting does not make much difference, although each and every performance is perfectly individual.
As the French would say: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose! The differences do not matter - the conception remains.
Of my four Carmens I could suggest that Eva Saurova was the most womanly, Helene Delavault the most doomstruck, Patricia Schuman the most sexy, and Emily Golden the most passionate. But all four were, as it were, all four.
Dramatically I had a slight preference for the whey-faced and fearful Laurence Dale as Don Jose, and Anne Christine Biel, a Meryl Streep lookalike, made a gorgeous Micaela, but of the four Escamillos I really had no favorite, and both Andreas Katsulas and Alain Maratrat are superb as Lillas Pastia.
This is one of those magic evenings in the theater never to be forgotten. It re-examines the nature of opera and it thrills to the marrow. By the way - it's in French. But I don't think anyone would particularly notice.
For his ''Tragedie de Carmen,'' Peter Brook has transformed the Vivian Beaumont's stage into a bullring carpeted with gravel and earth. It's an arena buffeted on every side by fate, and its round shape is echoed in every step of this production's relentless thrust.
When we first meet the gypsy temptress Carmen, she tosses tarot cards into a small circle of rope placed on the dirt. When we last see her 80 minutes later, she and her outcast soldier lover, Don Jose, make one final walk around the ring before meeting up with the destiny those cards have dealt. Many other circles come in between - drawn in sand and outlined in rope - but the largest of them all is not seen, only felt: It's the noose that Mr. Brook, through the astonishing power of his art, steadily tightens around the audience's throats.
The impact of this ''Carmen'' is so strong that even the evening's inevitable climax makes us gasp. The gasp is not motivated by surprise: As Mr. Brook's ''Carmen'' is an adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera, we know that Jose will ultimately rip a knife into the heroine's heart. We gasp because Mr. Brook has forced us to feel the fated denouement as if it were new again. In a world rife with esthetic overkill, this director has found the one way to put savagery back into tragedy: complete and utter simplicity.
Yet the evening is not just an emotional purging. There are other wonders of lighter effect - slapstick comedy played at silent-movie pace and gravely beautiful romantic tableaux cast in a Goyaesque glow. Magic is everywhere, and to appreciate it a theatergoer need only bring an open mind. You'll get the most from this ''Carmen'' if you focus on what it contains rather than what it leaves out.
What's been left out is much of the letter and some of the spirit of what may be the world's most popular piece of musical theater. Mr. Brook and his collaborators, the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carri ere and the composer Marius Constant, have demolished their source: They've removed roughly half of Bizet's score and retained only four singing roles from the original Meilhac-Halevy libretto; they've stripped away the traditional settings; they've cut the orchestra down to 14 pieces and shoved the surviving musicians into the wings.
And what, you ask, remains? Not Bizet's ''Carmen,'' that's for sure. This version is no substitute for the glorious original and can't be taken as such. Nor have we regained the whole of Prosper Merimee's ''Carmen,'' the novella that inspired Bizet and to which the current collaborators have returned for some of their revisions. But neither do we have a pop ''Carmen,'' reduced to its greatest hits. If that were the creators' cynical intention, they wouldn't have excised one of the biggest hits, the Act II quintet, or reduced another, the ''Cigarette Song,'' to an incidental musical joke. Even the music that remains has been rearranged and radically reordered: The overture turns up 15 minutes before the end, in the sacreligious form of a recording.
No, ''La Tragedie de Carmen'' must instead be seen as a new, pointedly retitled work that bends Bizet's score and themes, like found objects in a collage, to reflect the concerns of its creators. It's a modernist tragedy that opens with a Beckett image - Carmen emerges from what might be a dung heap - and continues to pile up sparsely populated stage pictures that ache with desolation and loneliness. The setting can hardly even pass for Spain anymore. The bullring is backed by a gray wall of wood that is nothing if not the void that Mr. Brook has been exploring at least as far back as his ''Endgame''-inspired ''King Lear'' of two decades ago.
One can also hear the voice of Mr. Carri ere, the scenarist of Luis Bunuel's late films, including ''Belle du Jour.'' The production's few props, mainly knives and cigars, are phallic. The action is charged with dirty, roughhouse sex and violence - twin passions that are interwoven with incendiary force. The once angelic Mica"ela is now in full-fledged pursuit of Jose's affections; she and Carmen tumble into the dirt in a catfight. Jose's obsessive jealousy drives him to commit two murders unknown to the original opera. Escamillo, the matador, is now a preening whorehouse roue who delivers his ''Toreador Song'' as a narcissistic sexual proposition.
Heated up and stripped of its social context, ''Carmen'' is no longer a conflict between Carmen's liberated gypsy passions and Jose's imprisoning bourgeois values. Carmen and Jose are now equal partners in a raw, brutal tale of mutual self-destruction that's fueled by both lust and existential bloodlust - and is as deadly for others as it is for themselves. The writing and staging are pitched accordingly, from the repeated emphasis on Bizet's death-intoned card aria (the first music we hear) to the hallucinatory telescoping of the story. This ''Carmen'' is indeed written like a Bunuel screenplay: Fragments of the original libretto, sprinkled with new dialogue, have been reassembled to achieve the associative shape and force of an archetypal nightmare.
Mr. Brook's direction achieves its own dreamlike intensity through stark, fluent, exquisitely composed movement. His staging is of a piece with the other so-called ''magic carpet'' shows he's done with his Paris- based International Center of Theater Research. In the past, however, Mr. Brook has at times tried to realize his goal of creating ritualistic, truly international theater by inventing sounds and language. How much better the director's strategy works when the universal language isn't gimmicky, nonsensical bird chatter but Bizet's sumptuous music and the French words wedded to it.
That music is effectively sung by performers who share several crucial virtues: they can act, they are sexy and they are young. Liberated from the conductor, the proscenium arch and any vestige of 19th-century pageantry, they achieve direct contact with one other and the audience, as well as balletic freedom of movement. The three rotating casts (out of five) I've seen in critics' previews at the Beaumont varied only marginally in collective impact. Each Carmen - Hel ene Delavault, Eva Saurova and Patricia Schuman - achieved roughly the same order of lewd, mysterious voluptuousness (with Miss Schuman perhaps proving first among near-equals). In other roles, I saw outstanding performances by Carl Johan Falkman as Escamillo, Veronique Dietschy and Beverly Morgan as Mica"ela, Alain Maratrat as the saloon keeper Lillas Pastia and, best of all, by Laurence Dale as a doleful, almost Chaplinesque Jose.
The only problem with Mr. Brook's ''Carmen,'' as with his landmark ''Midsummer Night's Dream,'' is that its lessons will undoubtedly be misapplied by faddist imitators for years to come. Other directors should not regard the production's radical surgery on a sacred text as either an end in itself or a manifesto calling for the demolition of all operas (or all ''Carmen''s). But Mr. Brook has certainly taught a needed, durable lesson to the current, renovation-fixated management at the Beaumont. Through sheer ingenuity, not costly reconstruction, the director has made this house into an intimate, playable auditorium where one can see and hear as clearly as in Broadway theaters of equivalent size.
What one sees and hears can be mesmerizing. In one haunting interlude, Carmen and Jose find their brief and only peace by pledging their troths in a secluded gypsy campsite bathed in the flickering, rust-colored twilight of ritual bonfires. Later, when Escamillo makes his final entrance in full matador regalia, the evening's only bright costume is chillingly mocked by the premonitorily enbalmed expression on the toreador's face.
But most memorable of all is that final image of Carmen and Jose - dressed in black, drained of blood, kneeling in the dirt to meet their fate while a mournful, kettle-drum echo of Carmen's first song, the ''Habanera,'' plays in the distance. Though only 80 minutes have passed in Mr. Brook's bullring, we nonetheless feel we've shared the whole, cruel arc of the lovers' journey - a full circle that has led inexorably from dust to dust.