Sunday, 6 June 2010

Subtle Carmen? 3D film Royal Opera House

Everyone knows the tunes from Carmen, even if they don 't know they come from an opera. So it's good that the world's favourite opera is now to become the world's first 3D opera film. 3D is a higher grade version of 2D High Definition currently available. It's been used in Avatar, the hit sci-fi fantasy, so it could bring a whole new audience to "the opera experience". 

Carmen is an ideal choice. We're so familiar with it, we forget how dramatic the plot is: crime, sex, blood and murder. Slutty women, men in cute uniforms. Carmen could have been written for the screen. In fact, lots of movies have already been made, so why not the opera itself?

Francesca Zambello's revived production is perfect too, because it's visually stunning. Watching it last night in the Royal Opera House, I kept imaging what a good film director might focus on, because this is a production that lends itself to being seen from different angles. In the auditorium, for example, it's easy to miss the small ensembles high above the stage, "on the ramparts" so to speak, who have a panorama on the village the seated audience don't see.

 Townsfolk mill about doing things, washing themselves, selling things, leading a live donkey across the stage (courtesy of Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary).  This is a set that just begs for the quick shots and pans you can do in film.  Interpretively, this busyness is valid, because Carmen and Escamillo have public images they need to pander to. Would Carmen be quite such a terror if she didn''t have an image to live up to? And Escamillo is the media darling of his time, adored because he risks his life to give the crowd a thrill.

Visually, this Carmen is stunning. The town glows in earth tones, ochres and reds. The smuggling scene's mysterious, sinister blues, greys, greens : The last scene outside the bullring is harshly lit, empty. Carmen has nowhere to hide, dark shadows loom.

The ensemble scenes are particularly effective. The children are wonderful, each distinctively individual and fun. They dance sequences are great. Even though you can tell the professional dancers from the dancing singers, that's part of the charm. The Toreros, of course are magnificent - they move like the dancers they are, and such costumes! Maximum impact is what it's all about. These peasants have grim lives, they need circus. Perhaps that's why Zambello created the religious procession in Act 3 which doesn't make sense otherwise. The Church is theatre too, and images of Jesus are often covered in blood. (If I were filming this, I#'d do a shot of flickering candles, snuffed out).

Part of the fun watching last night's performance at The Royal Opera House was imagining how it would grow  First Night Syndrome affects every production, but this time there's the film to think about too.  So much is hanging on the success of the film, which is a historic first.

Christine Rice's dark good looks make her a good choice for the part.  Her singing is precise and attractive, but a wild abandon would liven the characterization.  Carmen's lowdown, mean and dirty. Rice is well bred and lady-like, not really the sort of girl who sticks men's heads up her skirt to taunt them. She shows the softer sides of Carmen's personality better, such as in the card game trio with Frasquita (Elena Xanthoudakis) and Mercédès (Paula Murrihy), all three singing particularly well. A wonderful vignette.
Aris Argiris's Escamillo has huge potential. The "public" and "private" Escamillo co-exist, but often the public version dominates. The Act Two entrance is so dramatic that it overshadows all else -in this production, horse and all - but what was interesting for me was the way Argiris conveyed the double edge of the song. Escamillo's describing the spectacle of a bullfight, yet there's a wistful vulnerability when he sings of the "dark eyes" that are watching him.  This is important, for what Escamillo and Carmen have in common is this inner sensitivity other people cannot see, but which they recognize in each other.

Butch Escamillos we can hear any time,  but this one's much more interesting because it's subtle. Film can show details easily missed in an auditorium, so Argiris's characterization will "grow" to advantage in close-ups.  The part is written in an unusual way. The big entrance is dramatic, but it doesn't last long.  In the confrontation between Escamillo and Don José, the part is written more conventionally. In the final act, Escamillo doesn't have very much to sing at all.  But therein lies the intelligence of Bizet's approach.

It's not the macho big moments that really make Escamillo, but the short, concealed glimpses of who he really is.  Escamillo makes his entrance, then disappears as quickly as he came. The critical part in this scene isn't the flashy showmanship, but the moment when he glimpses Carmen.  The love duet lasts only moments, but again, it's powerful because it's understated and private. Argiris's Escamillo is much deeper than the usual playboy image. Because film can focus on intimate detail, we'll be able to appreciate this much more thoughtful approach to Escamillo. Indeed, this may also reveal the true depths of Christine Rice's Carmen.

It's significant how Bizet contrasts the two couples, Carmen and Escamillo and José and Micaëla. The former don't actually sing all that much, but the latter sing on, and on. Since the latter pair are more c9onventional, their parts are written more conventionally too. Brian Hymel's Don José struggled vocally in the first act, but by the final, and critical final act, he was in better form.  He'll be heard to advantage as the run progresses, and in the film. Singing, unlike bullfighting, isn't sudden death.

Maija Kovalevska's  Micaëla, on the other hand was superb from beginning to end. Sometimes,  Micaëla  seems like a minor part because she's just a kid, but Kovalevska's solid vocal authority brings out the role's hidden  power.  Micaëla travels into smuggler's dens to find José. She's more of a man than he is, sweet as she may be. Indeed, she's a protoype of Carmen herself,  because she, too, is independent and takes risks for love. It's her Covent Garden debut too, but she's sung the role at the Met and in Munich. She has impressive experience elsewhere too.

Since Carmen's so familiar, we think we know it. But prerhaps there are things in it we could still discover. I'm looking forward the the ROH film, 3D or not, if it's well directed . The stage direction could be tightened up, movements sharpened and French diction improved, but all in all, this was pretty interesting.

A much better version (with pix) of this is on the Opera Today site, where there's also an interview with Aris Argiris and details about the 3D film. The film is being made for the 3D audience rather than an opera audience as such.. There aren't many films for this kind of cinema, so wjy not give them a bit of culture with their usual fare? Dozens of adaptations of the Carmen theme exist, including one with Beyonce. So anyone who gets hysyterical about Carmen in 3D is a fool and a snob..

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