Opera often borrows characters from myth - witches such as Medea, militant saviours such as Siegfried - but seldom creates archetypal figures of its own. The exception is Carmen. The wily gypsy of Georges Bizet's opera has come to symbolise eternal womanhood, at once alluring and alarming, a generative force and a barbed, emasculating harpy. She is Venus puffing on a home-made cigarette, or an Andalusian version of the goddess Kali, adorned with a necklace of penises as souvenirs of her conquests.
In Prosper Mérimée's novella, Carmen is an almost marginal figure, of interest to the eth nologist who narrates the story because her bohemian savagery mocks the propriety of the bourgeoisie; her fate is subordinate to that of Don José, the upright soldier she corrupts, who murders her in a jealous rage. Mérimée concludes with a scholarly appendix on dialect and the oddities of the Romany idiom. Such concerns bypass Carmen who, in this literary work, has little chance to express herself. As José says, she can speak only "broken Basque".
Music, given to her by Bizet, is Carmen's proper medium. She enters singing a languid, teasing habanera, which is followed soon by a frisky séguidille. Song instinctively turns into dance, as music penetrates and agitates her en-tire body. She joins in the riotous knees-up of the gypsies in the tavern, and later performs a hip-swivelling solo for José, smashing plates to supply herself with castanets. Perhaps dance is even more important to Bizet's heroine than song. In 1915 Cecil B DeMille made a silent film of the opera with the soprano Geraldine Farrar: she could not perform the arias because there was no soundtrack, but her serpentine arms and slinky legs made up for her muteness. More recently, Carlos Saura choreographed a flamenco version of the opera, and in 2001 Matthew Bourne - using Rodion Shchedrin's jangling, metallic adaptation of Bizet's score - rewrote the opera's plot with his ballet The Car Man. Mythic characters are exempt from the limitations of gender, so Bourne turned Carmen into an indiscriminately randy male mechanic who stomped across the floor of an American garage in tight jeans and cowboy boots.
José calls Carmen a demon, but his befuddled moralism misses the point. Actually she is a maenad, the voice of the Dionysian delight that first gave birth to music. Friedrich Nietz sche, recovering from his morbid obsession with Wagner, basked in the "southern, brown, burnt sensibility" of Bizet's opera, and declared that "music should be Mediterraneanised". Wagnerian love offered uplift and redemption, achieved by renouncing the flesh; in Carmen, Nietzsche found a truer, terser summary of "the tragic joke that constitutes the essence of love". After stabbing the heroine, José kneels sobbing beside her corpse. He boasts of having killed her, and then says - with a helpless, self-scourging wail - that he adored her. Consummation is achieved with the aid of a knife: for Nietzsche, the opera's distraught final tableau exemplified the mutual animosity of the sexes and exposed the cruel farce of nature's procreative design.
Mérimée's scholarly narrator, conducting fieldwork to locate the site of a battle in one of Caesar's wars, bothers about geographical niceties. His exploration of the area around Córdoba leads him into the fabled Spain that became the spicy paradise advertised by the travel brochures: the Carmen of the novella helpfully offers tourist information to José, a newcomer to Seville, and says that if he likes fried food he should try Lillas Pastia's joint in the Triana district. Yet Bizet never crossed the border into Spain, and his heroine has escaped from nationality and universalised herself. Although Francesca Zambello's new production at Covent Garden sticks to Seville, this is an opera that can be set anywhere, because its coupling of sex and death outlines the stark scenario of all human existence.
Carmen is probably more at home in societies that are about to explode than in staid, tradition-bound Europe. Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones moved it to the segregated southern United States, unsettled by mobilisation for the Second World War. The Romanian director Lucian Pintilie, staging the opera in Cardiff in 1986, presented it as the mad revelry of a gang of Latin American anarchists. In 2004 Mark Dornford-May filmed U-Carmen eKhayelitsha in a bedraggled township near Cape Town, with the suave gypsy singing in Xhosa, one of South Africa's 11 official languages. The music, which is indestructible, emerged unharmed.
No single performance of Bizet's opera, fortunately, can ever be definitive. My personal anthology of favourite Carmens includes both Régine Crespin's sophisticated courtesan and the brassy, bumptious Marilyn Horne. Teresa Berganza played the character as a skittish tomboy, Agnes Baltsa as an unbridled peasant; Anne Sofie von Otter gave her an undertone of depressed, introverted melancholy that was more Scandinavian than tropical. Olga Borodina's Carmen was a lazy feline, her voice slowly curling through the air like smoke from a perfumed cigarette. As if to illustrate the range of options, Covent Garden has double-cast the role: Anna Caterina Antonacci, better known as a grave classical tragedian in operas by Handel or Berlioz, will be followed in January by Marina Domashenko, who, as a Russian, still possesses the exotic allure that Mérimée and Bizet found in Spain. Mythic characters possess a thousand faces, and Carmen remains as inexhaustibly various as Shakespeare's Cleopatra.
"Carmen" opens at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, on 8 December and continues in rep until 3 February 2007. www.roh.org.uk