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BIZET'S CARMEN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Plácido Domingo, Julia Migenes-Johnson, Ruggero Raimondi, Faith Esham
Director: Francesco Rosi
Audio: French Stereo
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, non-anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: trailers
Length: 155 minutes
Release Date: December 28, 1999

"L'amour est enfant de bohéme, il n'a jamais jamais connu de loi; si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime, si je t'aime prends garde a toi..."

(Love is like a gypsy child who never knew any law; if you spurn me, I love you, and if I love you, beware!)

Film ****

Like a vast majority of Americans, I claim mostly ignorance when it comes to opera.  Verdi's Tosca remains to date the only opera I've seen performed on stage.  While I enjoyed that singular experience very much, the simple truth is that, for many Americans, opera remains stuffy high culture when most of us would rather be watching a light, inconsequential comedy or a mindless action flick.  Certainly, the stereotypical image of a fat lady singing Wagnerian music does little to excite potential fans, especially when one considers that many operas are in the neighborhood of at least three hours, if not longer, in length.

However, if there is a single opera known even to decidedly non-opera aficionados, surely it must be Georges Bizet's Carmen.  A tale about the forbidden love between a gypsy woman and a fallen soldier, this famous nineteenth-century opera was originally based upon a scandalously risqué novella by Prosper Mérimée.  As such, Carmen was an unusual opera for its time, as many of its characters were of the everyday world, not heroes of mythology or medieval times.  When Carmen first premiered in Paris at L'Opéra Comique on March 3, 1875, it was coldly received.  This was due in part to its realistic characterizations and in part due to Bizet's association with the composer Berlioz, who had then been roundly criticized in Paris for his modernistic ideas in music.  That Bizet had been Berlioz's disciple prejudiced many critics towards Bizet and his music somewhat unfairly.  The premiere was a disaster, and because Bizet died only three months after Carmen's premiere, he never knew the great acclaim which his opera would shortly achieve.

Bizet's Carmen (1984), by Italian director Francesco Rosi, is a film adaptation of that opera.  While many of the operas found on video or DVD tend to be live recordings of static stage performances, Bizet's Carmen is a vivid, energetic film shot almost entirely on Andalusian locations.  The real sceneries - pastoral landscapes, sun-scorched villas, bull fight arenas, traditional dances, gypsy camps, and much more - add a lot of atmosphere to the film.  Not only do they greatly enhance the vibrancy of the opera, but they also open it up instead of confining it to a stage.  By giving the opera a more cinematic feel, Rosi has also made it much more accessible to general audiences not accustomed to the genre.

In another unusual touch, Bizet's Carmen employs passages of spoken dialogue written by Bizet himself.  This was in opposition to the recitatives written after his death and commonly used in the opera's performances.  Interestingly, there is little consensus among opera connoisseurs over which version is superior.  Regardless, this film follows the original design and uses Bizet's dialogue, which in the end also helps to make the opera more accessible to general audiences.

For the film, the proper casting of Carmen, the opera's central character, was absolutely essential.  As film is a much less forgiving medium than stage, whoever assumed the role of Carmen had to be quite convincing as a young, fiery gypsy siren.  Fortunately, the American soprano Julia Migenes-Johnson is just that, not only looking the part and the proper age but also projecting sexuality and feminine guile into her every movement and song.  A relative newcomer at the time, she had trained for ten months to adapt her voice to the mezzo range required of the role.  In the end, her efforts create an absolutely believable and sensual Carmen who could either melt a man's heart or drive a dagger through it. 

The Italian tenor Plácido Domingo (who hardly needs any introduction in the world of opera) plays the luckless lover, Don José.  An honest army corporal with a faithful sweetheart, Don José will desert his post and abandon all honor in a passionate pursuit of Carmen.  Domingo was still a young man at the time of the film's production and so possessed the dashing good looks to pull off his romantic role admirably.  While he has only been in relatively few movies, Plácido Domingo's Don José is certainly one of his finest screen performances.

The supporting cast is quite good as well.  Ruggero Raimondi plays Escamillo, the toréador who competes with Don José for Carmen's affections.  Faith Esham is Micaëla, Don José's hometown sweetheart.  Both are quite accomplished singers in this film.  And, the background players, who appear as rural Spanish peasants and gypsies, complete the illusion that this Carmen exists in an actual setting and not the fanciful stage scenery of the typical opera.

The film, as with the opera, is divided into four acts.  In the first act, which opens in Séville, we are introduced to most of the principals.  Don José is stationed in the villa, and Micaëla has come in search of him.  As Micaëla searches, Carmen makes her first, seductive appearance in the film, singing "Habañera" to a group of appreciative young men.  Don José, on patrol at the time, is among them and watches her intently, slowly becoming bewitched by this gypsy woman.  Shortly thereafter, Micaëla finds Don José and delivers her message in the tender duet "Parle-moi de ma mère."  Though Don José is clearly affectionate for sweet Micaëla, his heart will not remain hers for long.  Later in the day, Don José arrests a local woman for starting a brawl in the town's factory; she turns out to be Carmen, the gypsy woman.  She is brought under his captivity to the local prison, but soon it is Carmen who in turn captivates and seduces the young Don via the seguidilla and duet "Près des remparts de Séville."  She persuades him to help her escape, bringing the first act to a close.

The second act commences in a gypsy camp.  Carmen is among her kin, carefree and singing.  At this point, Escamillo (Ruggero Raimondi) arrives by carriage.  Though he is merely passing, he stops for the admiration of this gypsy rabble.  While singing the "Toréador Song," he spies Carmen, and Escamillo too falls under her spell.  Before departing, he extends an invitation to her to attend his next bull-fight.  The love triangle is thereby complete.  Later that evening, Don José arrives to woo Carmen.  But why would Carmen settle for a now-disgraced soldier when she has the attentions of a glamorous toréador?  The encounter goes badly for Don José, and the second act closes after his departure.

The third act is set within the mountainous ranges of the countryside.  Don José has taken to stalking Carmen, even as Micaëla succeeds in seeking him down once more.  She tries to persuade him to abandon his foolishness and to return with her to their hometown but to no avail.  Don José soon encounters and challenges Escamillo to a duel of knives, but the contest ends in a draw after Carmen arrives on the scene and clearly shows her favors for Escamillo.  Disgraced again, Don José leaves.

The fourth and final act opens with the opera's famous "Procession" theme.  Set at the bull-fight arena, it features an impressive parade of toréadors entering the arena ceremoniously.  Escamillo is among them.  He seeks to impress Carmen, present in the audience, with his great skills as a bull-fighter (coincidentally, the ensuing bull-fight is real, though the task of engaging the bull is handled by real bull-fighters).  Don José is also in the audience and, catching Carmen's eye, beckons her to speak with him one last time.  It is the final, fateful encounter between Carmen and Don José.  They sing one final duet together, at the climax of which the opera draws towards its tragic conclusion.

Of course, opera has always been more about the music than the plots.  In fact, most opera aficionados already have an opera's entire storyline memorized prior even to the rising of the curtains, the better with which to concentrate on and enjoy the music.  Carmen's plot is a straight-forward and simple one with little surprises in store.  What elevates this opera to greatness is the pure energy and spirit of its score and many famous songs.  Fortunately, for Bizet's Carmen, everyone is in extremely good voice, and the orchestration is quite majestic as well.  As the two tragic lovers, Plácido Domingo and Julia Migenes-Johnson are magnificent, with Migenes-Johnson delivering a star-making performance.  Viewers who have never seen or heard Carmen before will be in for a grand treat here.  At once intimate yet epic in scale, Bizet's Carmen showcases some of the finest singing of any "musical" in the last three decades and also possesses enough adventure, action, drama, and romance to please even the casual viewer unacquainted with the opera genre.

Video ***

Bizet's Carmen is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.  The print used in this transfer is fairly nice, and the transfer also preserves much of the vibrant colors of the film, with accurate flesh tones and decent clarity.  Night scenes sometimes become a little grainy and there are a few rare jagged edges, but otherwise this is a decent video presentation, though an anamorphic transfer would have made the image look even better.

Audio *** 1/2

Many of the songs in this opera, especially "Habañera" or the 'Toréador Song," are among the most well-known in the repertory.  Anyone with even a passing interest in opera music will undoubtedly recognize many of them.

The orchestration is provided by the 120-member Orchestre National de France, conducted by Lorin Maazel.  Some choral singing is provided by the Children's Chorus of Radio-France.  All the singing was recorded prior to actual filming, and actors lip-synch to their own voices. 

And wow.  What can I say?  I am in awe of these singers.  They are simply incredible.  Plácido Domingo sings superbly, Julia Migenes-Johnson sings superbly, Faith Esham sings superbly...why, everyone sings superbly.  The audio may only be Dolby Stereo, but the vocal abilities of these performers is just astounding and do not require surround sound to make a definite impression.

Features *

Not much here.  There are just a couple of trailers for the film, one for this film and one for Dreamlife of Angels.  There are also decent Spanish or English subtitles, which I suspect the vast majority of viewers will use.  However, those fluent in French might brave the French subtitles, which are very accurate and will allow self-confident viewers to sing along with Plácido and Julia!

Summary:

For people unfamiliar with opera music (and that would be most of you reading this), if you're curious, there is no better way to start than with Bizet's Carmen!  This DVD boasts power-house singing amidst lush, vivid pastoral settings and is one of the finest cinematic presentations of any operatic work!