CarmenGeorges Bizet - Carmen

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 2010 | Constantinos Carydis, Francesca Zambello, Christine Rice, Bryan Hymel, Aris Argiris, Maija Kovalevska, Dawid Kimberg, Nicolas Courjal, Elena Xanthoudakis, Paula Murrihy, Adrian Clarke, Harry Nicoll | Real-D Inc

To my mind, there are two ways to play Carmen for maximum effect – one is slow and sultry, the other is fast and passionate. I will admit though that I haven’t seen a production of Carmen in well over ten years, so I was prepared to accept that there may be other aspects that could be brought out of the opera. With a 3-D version on a theatrical run in the cinema, it seemed like a perfect opportunity then to consider what other ‘dimensions’ could indeed be found in Bizet’s opera. While the Royal Opera House production did indeed reveal that there are indeed deeper elements to an opera with more than its share of terrific, universally-known, crowd-pleasing tunes, it never really settled however on any one approach, and, perhaps most disappointingly – although perhaps not unexpectedly considering the experience of 3-D movies at the cinema – it failed to convince that the 3-D experience is anything more than a gimmick that doesn’t work all that well.

This is a production that never really comes to life, and the use of 3-D, in an attempt to bring you closer to the experience, doesn’t make up for failings in the performance itself. Opera already has an extra dimension that cinema and theatre don’t traditionally have in their acting and storytelling, and that is the expression of sentiments, actions and themes through the music and the singing. There is nothing lacking in opera – and if anything the 3-D production confirms this – that needs to be brought out by any other means than the interpretation of the performers under the direction of the conductor and stage director. Francesca Zambello’s stage direction for this production of Carmen is in this respect fairly conventional, working with the opera and playing to its traditional strengths, a composite almost of every cliché associated with the opera’s vision of Spanish gypsy culture, but not really having anything new to contribute to it, no modern reinterpretation and – I suppose we should be thankful for this at least – nothing added to make it more accessible for either television viewing or 3-D cinema projection. It’s a traditional, old-favourite opera, and it’s played very safely.

As to whether the performance, more importantly, gets to the emotional core of the opera – personally, I found it unconvincing. The pace of Act 1 opts, I presume, for slow and sultry, with gypsy girls aplenty, legs spread, arms akimbo, skirts hitched up and much heaving cleavage on show during la Havanaise – “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, but the real expression of the underlying passions and temptations are better expressed in the music and singing, and here it just feels lifeless with a tempo that drags. There is little wrong with the singing of Christine Rice and Bryan Hymel in the principal roles, but whether they felt the pressure of performing before cameras that get in much closer than usual in filmed opera – although there was no toning down of theatre mannerisms – the performances felt perfunctory, never getting beneath the surface of whatever dark passions drive the characters to their tragic fates. Only Maija Kovalevska in the role of Micaela, brought out that other dimension I was looking for in the opera in her Act 3 “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”, showing that there are more noble sentiments and a more pure love can exist, but that it doesn’t really stand a chance against the all-consuming lust and the jealousy that fires Don José and Carmen.

Carmen

If the lust doesn’t come across convincingly, the painful jealousy that is going to lead to the tragic conclusion is there also to some degree in Act 3 of this production, but it’s too little and too late when the connection that brings Don José and Carmen together hasn’t been sufficiently established. To its credit then this production at least convinced me that there are other ways of playing Carmen than slow and sultry or fast and passionate, and that really, a balanced production should incorporate all those elements, as well as the more noble sentiments of Micaela’s love and a mother’s concern for her son. All those elements are there in this production, but none of them seem to reach the heights demanded, nor indeed work in common accord. The failure to achieve this is likewise across the board, the staging not really finding a way of exploring these emotions in any depth, the singing and acting feeling largely perfunctory, and the filming for the screen never succeeding in bringing it to life.

The RealD 3-D filming, directed for the screen by Julian Napier, was extremely disappointing in this respect. The most effective use of the 3-D effects were backstage at the start of the opera, where the lighting is strong enough to set figures in the foreground against the background, and in the opening shot on stage when an imprisoned Don José stretches out his hands pleadingly – one of the few original touches that indicate that both deaths foretold in the Carmen’s card-reading come to pass. Elsewhere, backgrounds were black or too dark, and figures were not close enough in the foreground to achieve anything like the same effect, save for the very occasional close-up arrangement, and only one or two obvious attempts to project images towards the camera. Where the 3-D also fared badly in comparison to regular High Definition live broadcasts and particularly with the exceptionally high standard of Blu-ray discs, was in the artificiality of the shimmery digital image that was created, one that also blurred excessively in movement and, even when static, failed to produce a sharp or detailed enough image.