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TV Review: MTV's hip-hop version of 'Carmen' refreshing

Monday, May 07, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

Opera lovers and rap fans alike can be forgiven for chuckling the first time they hear about the latest MTV project: a hip-hop version of Bizet's opera "Carmen."


When: 8 p.m. tomorrow on MTV.

Starring: Beyonce Knowles, Mekhi Phifer, Mos Def, Wyclef Jean, Lil Bow Wow, Rah Digga, Casey Lee, Da Brat.


Set in present-day Philadelphia and cast with artists and rappers Beyonce Knowles, Mos Def, Wyclef Jean, Lil Bow Wow, Rah Digga and Da Brat, it would seem headed for a fall quicker than Don Jose can say, "Carmen, you just trippin'," which he does.

But this "Hip Hopera" beats the odds. Walking a precarious line between opera and music video, it becomes something entirely different, and that's not a bad thing.

Bizet's "Carmen" survives updates well because it was set in modern times when composed in the 1870s. It doesn't open in ancient Troy or Greece, but in a tobacco factory in Seville. "Carmen Jones" is the most well-known example of placing the opera and its libretto in the present.

However, "Carmen Jones" retains most of Bizet's original music. MTV's version, on the other hand, replaces it with rap "arias" that more or less do the same thing. The plot modernization is believable, with the corporal Don Jose now a police officer named Sgt. Derrick Hill, and the toreador Escamillo now a famous rap star named Blaze. The pacing is excellent, the libretto tasteful (though the plot is altered) and the acting as good as any in the operatic world.

Beyond all this, the effort is simply refreshing, directed by Robert Townsend ("Hollywood Shuffle"). For one, MTV isn't trying to edify audiences or get young listeners hooked on opera. It just found a racy, sexy and updateable story line that would sit well with its viewers. If there ever were a sign that good opera from the past, like Shakespeare, can still be relevant, this is it.

The worlds of Bizet's opera and TV's typical fare aren't far removed. At the center are sex, betrayal and violence. Knowles, the lead singer of Destiny's Child, is as seductive a Carmen as you will ever see. She and Mekhi Phifer (as Hill) give a committed performance as doomed lovers. Only Wyclef Jean reminds you he's not an actor, with a goofy attempt as a fortune teller.

Yes, without Bizet's music you lose most of the original masterpiece, though the music is sampled and incorporated somewhat in the rap arias. But, like the 1996 remake of "Romeo and Juliet," it captures the essence of the story without cheapening it. Purists won't like this "Carmen" a bit, and they don't have to. There are plenty of good recordings to choose from.

Actually, the MTV version changes more than just the music. The opera's ending is changed, putting Hill in a better light and increasing the role of his superior officer (Zuniga in "Carmen," renamed Lt. Miller by MTV), played with a sinister sliminess by Mos Def. But the basic passions of the tragedy remain powerfully the same.

No, this "Carmen" isn't Bizet's or even opera at all. And, yes, the lyrics will occasionally embarrass any opera or rap fan. But MTV's "Carmen" is convincing and enjoyable on its own terms, and sure beats "MTV's Spring Break."

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