In Saturday’s Washington Po st, I had an article on the new “Carmen in 3D” (Carmen in 3D, one dimension short). (Go read the article. I’ll wait.)
One thing that struck me about “Carmen in 3D,” as I said in the article, is that it’s opera houses rather than film directors who have led the charge in the current vogue for opera on screen. We have the classic 1954 “Don Giovanni” film, or Zeffirelli’s “La traviata” or Rossi’s “Carmen,” but they all remain one-offs; now, we’re seeing a veritable flood of opera in movie theaters, and it’s all filmed versions of stage productions. The people directing these films are charged with the task of documenting a live event, not with creating a work of art.
This creates a funny dichotomy: on the one hand, opera houses are tending to hire more telegenic casts, but on the other hand, what we’re seeing in the cinema is not about creating the illusion of film, but rather the illusion of theater. The directors of these films have the task of representing or documenting existing productions, rather than creating works of art: Julian Napier, who directed the “Carmen in 3D,” is a 3D specialist rather than an artiste. (The actual production is by Francesca Zambello.)
This does nothing to advance the aesthetic of opera as an art form - or does it? The popularity of these broadcasts has to show that something is working. Where a “naturalistic” opera film has to figure out how to deal with the idea that people sing instead of speaking, a film that documents a staged production presents the artifice upfront. Indeed, the artifice is underlined by the backstage interviews, the peeks behind the curtain, that have become a requisite and expected part of the opera-broadcast experience: this is all a reminder that we’re seeing a performance, rather than something that purports to be “real.”
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with documenting performances -- especially if it proves to be opera’s salvation (the jury is still out on that). But I do think that bringing 3D into the equation highlights a kind of philosophical contradiction: you’re using state-of-the-art technology to replicate the experience of interacting with a centuries-old art form. I’d love to see what a real director-artist could do with a 3D film of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or Verdi’s “Aida” or, heck, Wagner’s “Ring” -- what would happen if the technology were actually unleashed in the service of advancing the form artistically, rather than merely finding a flashier way to preserve what’s already there. But I can’t argue with success. The point of opera broadcasts and DVDs as we’re seeing them today is to underline the primacy of the live experience -- just as we critics are always saying we want it to be.