'Carmen in 3D': One dimension short
"Carmen" may be the most filmed opera in history. Cecil B. De Mille made a silent version in 1915; Francesco Rossi made a full-blown cinematic version in 1984. It was only a matter of time until it made it into 3D. "Carmen in 3D," a film of Francesca Zambello's recent production at the Royal Opera House, directed for the screen by the 3D specialist Julian Napier, hits theaters today.
Strikingly, it's been opera houses rather than movie producers who've managed to make opera at the movies a success. Certainly there have been plenty of attempts through the years at opera films: the fabulous 1954 "Don Giovanni" with Cesare Siepi, Zeffirelli's 1982 "La Traviata" and, most recently, Robert Dornhelm's 2008 "La Boheme." But the real heyday of opera in movie theaters began in 2007 when Peter Gelb introduced live HD movie theater broadcasts to, or rather from, the Metropolitan Opera. Now, opera seems to be leading all the other performing arts in cinematic production. There are some ballet broadcasts, and productions from London's National Theatre, but nothing to match, yet, the energy of opera houses around the world: La Scala, San Francisco, Covent Garden, which actually bought a production company in 2007.
As a result, most operas on screen these days are films of performances taking place on a stage. Rather than transporting you to the place where the story is happening, these films and broadcasts seek to transport you to the opera house - in the hopes that you'll come back, and buy tickets.
"Carmen in 3D," therefore, is not trying to one-up the Rossi film. Rather, it's trying to place the viewer, for the price of a movie ticket, in the best seats in the house. Opera broadcasts afford the ultimate insider's view: The camera obviates the need for opera glasses, zeroing in on performers, showing you where the highlights are. If opera resembles sports (and it does!), these productions give the bleacher crowd the illusion of access to the skybox.
Playing with levels of reality is what 3D is all about. "Carmen in 3D" signposts this fact from the very beginning: It opens in the dressing room where Bryan Hymel, the tenor, is warming up to sing Don Jose, while other singers apply makeup and get into costume. We are assembling the illusion, in three dimensions. All the initial magic of the 3D experience, in fact, is expended on Hymel's offstage physicality. Lest we forget that he's a real person about to play a character, he gives a little grin at the camera as he leaves the dressing room and prepares to go on.
Anyone who thinks this opening signals this movie's playful attitude toward illusion, technology and 3D will be sadly disppointed. It turns out that this behind-the-scenes view is no more than the dutiful inclusion of an element that opera-broadcast audiences have come to expect. The rest of "Carmen in 3D" simply documents the opera house production, from beginning to end (but without musical entr'actes). The prologue, then, is merely a caveat, showing that the director knows the difference between illusion and reality, and that the illusion is imperfect. It's backed up by the final episode you see on screen as you leave the theater: the credits, rolling on a black background over the music of one of the missing entr'actes - which fades out a few bars before the end. Both the beginning and the end of this movie undercut the opera's integrity as a work of art: The takeaway message is that the opera exists to be documented, rather like a subject of dissection.
And dissection is what the 3D technology does. An opera director creates a world within a box, the walls and floor of the stage; the 3D camera creates its own three-dimensional "box," delineated by the edges of the screen. The contrast between these two boxes becomes oddly dislocating in a live production. Opera cameramen these days seldom linger, presumably to keep the viewer entertained, but as the camera angle here darts around, one is left uncertain about the actual orientation of what one is seeing. What is the stage picture? Where are we? Bodies appear larger than life, reaching out into our space, but cut off at the waist by the bottom of the screen, inadvertently emphasizing not naturalism, but the medium's artificiality. The technology rapidly becomes a distraction: By constantly reaffirming that we are supposed to be watching an illusion, it compromises that illusion's ability to work.
Finally, though, a filmed performance, whatever its technical advantages or drawbacks, is only as good as its performance - which, in this case, is no more than pretty good. Opera on film struggles with the fact that the best voices are not always in the most telegenic bodies. This "Carmen," to its credit, managed to find good-looking, role-appropriate young singers. Even more to its credit, or Francesca Zambello's, is that this director consistently gets such good acting performances from singers. Christine Rice makes a spunky, sexy gypsy; Maija Kovalevska is beautiful as Micaela, tortured by her love for the largely oblivious Jose; Hymel (who is coming to Baltimore as Faust in 2012) sings solidly and is both handsome and slightly nerdy, as Jose should be; and Aris Argiris, a Greek baritone, made his Royal Opera House debut as a hunky and well-sung Escamillo. Musically, though, the whole thing was slightly compromised by the leaden conducting of Constantinos Carydis (the miking didn't help him; I've never heard such a brass-heavy account of the introduction).
And the individual elements didn't add up to the most electrifying performance of "Carmen" I've ever seen. Carmen is an awfully long opera; this veristic, straightforward approach didn't add, for me, anything new. If you want contemporary dramatic immediacy, try David McVicar's Glyndebourne production with Anne-Sofie von Otter, which for me brought something new to the work. "Carmen in 3D," on the other hand, is no more than perfectly adequate - and, for such a hyped endeavor, sadly two-dimensional.
Carmen in 3D will be shown today at AMC Mazza Gallerie, AMC Loews Georgetown and other theaters in the region. For theater information, go to www.carmen3d.com.