Movie fans should see "Bizet's Carmen," now playing at the West End Circle, because it is a well-made and unusual film -- though it may give them unrealistic ideas of what opera is really like. Opera fans should see "Bizet's Carmen" partly because it is a striking performance of the world's most popular opera, but also in self-defense.
If they don't see it, they will be confused by what they hear about it -- for example, by references to the bedroom scene, which is one of the most powerful in the film.
Bedroom scene? There is no bedroom scene in "Carmen."
There is in this one. There is also a scene in a barracks room with barred doors and whitewashed walls that make it look like a prison.
These scenes give Carmen (Julia Migenes-Johnson) and Don Jose (Placido Domingo) a little privacy for the intimate moments, usually acted out in public places during staged "Carmens," where their smouldering sexuality bursts into flame. Carmen bullies Jose into sexual submission twice in the first two acts of this opera, and it always seems slightly odd when she does it in a busy public square or a crowded tavern. Usually, the chorus has to slip out quietly to give the lovers a little time together.
On film, in bedroom or barracks, the action becomes more plausible, and the erotic tension, which is what this opera is all about, is highly intensified. The effect is largely to the credit of Domingo, who is a great singer and pretty good actor, and Migenes-Johnson, who is a good singer and a compelling actress, totally identified with the role of Carmen.
But it can happen credibly only in privacy. And this kind of privacy is a luxury available to movie cameras, which can move anywhere, but unavailable on stage, where a lot of scenery has to be shifted before the hero and heroine can move indoors.
In translating Bizet's opera to film, director Francesco Rosi has made it something slightly different, something bigger and often something better (at least in terms of impact) than what we are used to seeing on the opera stage. "Carmen" is always larger than life. "Bizet's Carmen" is frequently larger than "Carmen."
The music is familiar (with a few minor insertions), and so is the story: Carmen, a wild Gypsy dedicated to total freedom, lures Don Jose, a Spanish soldier and a bit of a mother's boy, into a life of crime among the smugglers in the mountains. Then she abandons him for Escamillo, a bullfighter. Jose, in despair, stabs Carmen to death outside the Plaza de Toros (the bullfight arena) while the crowd inside is cheering her new lover's latest triumph.
All this is done to the tunes of the Habanera, the Seguedilla, the Flower Song, the Toreador Song and all the other colorful, dramatic and familiar music of Bizet. But Rosi uses his camera to put the opera in context. He zeroes in on small details and presents panoramic vistas. He also uses his camera to untangle wordlessly the less plausible details of a somewhat problematic plot.
This "Carmen" shows a lot of the bullfighting that is usually left to the audience's imagination. It has real mountains where the smugglers lead heavily loaded mules through steep, rocky paths. The overture comes after a long, bloody bullfighting sequence, with the death stroke serving as the music's downbeat. It is interrupted by a Lenten religious procession -- black-hooded figures marching silently through the old streets while the plaintive music of a flamenco saetas sounds in the distance. The camera takes the audience inside the cigarette factory where Carmen has stabbed a co-worker, and it gives a closeup of Escamillo's face as he slips his sword into a defeated bull. If the music were any less powerful than Bizet's brilliant score, it could easily be overpowered by the pictures.
As it is, the pictures give the music some uncomfortable moments. The long, wordless introduction is so powerful that even a seasoned opera-goer is startled when Morales (well played by Franc,ois Le Roux) sings the opera's first line of solo dialogue. Suddenly, one realizes with a little shock that this is an opera, not a documentary on Spain with incidental music by Bizet.
In atmosphere, this opera film differs strikingly from Franco Zeffirelli's "La Traviata," which dazzled audiences last year. Both are fantasies about love and death, but Zeffirelli is smooth and polished, Rosi energetic and a bit clumsy. Zeffirelli is well-versed in opera; Rosi is not. Zeffirelli uses all the details picked up by his camera to reinforce the fantasy embodied in the words and music. Rosi strains at the limits of operatic form; he wants to linger over details or show panoramas when the words and music are telling him to move on. But in spite of this tension, or perhaps because of it, he has produced a classic of operatic film.
The picture is well cast, visually and vocally, from the leading singers down to the Spanish extras and the Antonio Gades Dance Company, who provide atmospheric background and in-depth color. Domingo's is by far the best voice in the cast, and he is a more than acceptable actor. Migenes-Johnson acts magnificently down to the smallest detail; she has studied her character intensely and identifies with her totally. She is fiery, willful, capricious and totally demanding, totally self-centered, totally magnificent. Ruggero Raimondi has the proper arrogant strut and the right voice for the role of Escamillo. Faith Esham sings well and makes the awkward role of Micaela convincing.
Migenes-Johnson does not really have a Carmen voice; she is a light soprano who worked hard on her low notes for this role, which she has never sung and probably never will sing on stage. But aided by her compelling visual presence and some manipulation of the soundtrack, she comes across with total conviction musically as well as dramatically.
Lorin Maazel conducts the French National Orchestra and two choruses in a performance that is more musical than dramatic. It works well in combination with the screen images, but the soundtrack recording (Erato NUM 751133) will not be remembered as one of the great "Carmen" recordings of all time.