BIZET'S CARMEN" is a breathtakingly beautiful hybrid of opera and cinema, a marriage of sight and sound that brings the composer's star-crossed lovers to life as stagecraft has never done.
It takes us into the mountains of Spain where the bandits dwell, and into the ring with the matador Escamillo. Here is the arena of love and death where the bloodstained sands mark the slaying of the temptress and the bull.
An inspired Francesco Rosi directs with reverence. His settings are rugged, the colors of a dusty Andalusian village, where mules move slowly and the factory girls pull their skirts above their thighs to roll cigars.
The cinematography by Pasqualino de Santis is passionate. You can feel the heat of the air and the bodies, even the lust between Carmen and the men who wait to watch her in the taverna ar work. The factory women all look like Sophia Loren in a provocative dance choreographed by Antonio Gades, who adapted Bizet in his flamenco "Carmen."
This Carmen is played by Julia Migenes- Johnson, an American soprano -- part Greek, part Puerto Rican, part Irish. She takes some getting used to at first, because she looks more like Barbra Streisand than a Spanish gypsy. She's almost ugly, but her movements are as erotic as a cat rubbing against legs. Besides, the essence of Carmen is not beauty, but the femme fatale's trusty love charm -- the allure of the untamable.
Tenor Placido Domingo, a star of "La Traviata," plays the obsessed soldier Don Jose, who deserts his family and career to follow something wild and free. Domingo bases his characterization on Prosper Merimee's violent novella rather than on the toned-down libretto written after Bizet's death. He portrays Don Jose rather like Robert Mitchum might have.
During the eloquent 'Flower Song," we see Don Jose torn between duty and honor and his infatuation for the promiscuous gypsy on a tousled bed. Michaela, his virtuous girlfriend, tries to save him, but it's too late. The siren has already sung to him.
Faith Esham is a marvelous Michaela, with her country girl's face as pure and innocent as her crystal voice, a perfect contrast to Migenes-Johnson's huskier, recently developed mezzo-soprano. Esham sings about bringing Don Jose a chaste kiss from his mother, so it's a given that her powers are nowhere near so persuasive as Carmen's.
The Orchestre National de France with the Chorus and Children's Chorus of Radio- France are conducted by Lorin Maazel. The chorus is never seen statically, and only seen when the voices contribute to the plot. The subtitles rightly assume that the viewer has enough sense to recognize repeated phrases.
Bizet's opera was castigated by critics three months before his death. Like Mozart, he never knew what his work would mean, or that his legy would last a century and beyond. "Bizet's Carmen" not only has the poignancy of "Amadeus," but the luxuriance of "La Traviata." BIZET'S CARMEN -- At the West End Circle.