Opera film review: ‘Carmen in 3D’

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Opera was created at the end of the 16th century to be art in three dimensions -- music, libretto, theater. In the 20th century, opera took on a sometimes fourth dimension with film or video. “Carmen in 3D” now adds a fifth.

We haven’t reached the 11 dimensions of string theory yet, but we are on the way, and maybe can learn a lesson from physics. After four dimensions, the world gets very hard to imagine; what theorists tell us is reality seems simply weird. And sure enough, “Carmen in 3D” -- screening at mulitple theaters on Saturday -- is peculiar to watch and inexplicable.


The film is of a Royal Opera production of Bizet’s opera filmed by Julian Napier during a live performance at Covent Garden in London last summer. The excellent production by Francesca Zambello is realistic and full of convincing small details that can well withstand close-ups. It was a hit when it premiered five years ago. But instead of the original exceptionally sexy, stellar cast -- Ann Caterina Antonacci, Jonas Kaufmann and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, with Antonio Pappano conducting and available on DVD -- ‘Carmen in 3D’ relies on conventionally capable, if uninspired, little-known singers and conductor.

It’s the you-are-there 3-D that seems to be the point. But where exactly is there?

Napier opens with a now-obligatory backstage shot in the dressing room. Watching 3-D film, I find, is a little like the salacious, disconnected sense one has of spying through a peephole. In live opera, your ear makes you part of the drama. For this ‘Carmen,’ your eye takes you elsewhere. Unlike the veristic backstage shots of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts, this is, from the get-go, “Carmen” as voyeurism. And so goes the show, as well. Sometimes we peek onto the stage. Sometimes the gods of rubbernecking reward us with characters who pop up in front of us close enough to touch. The camera directs our eyes to details, the dirt on the Gypsies’ legs, for instance (which was in the original production). Carmen shows her legs a lot, but in 3-D, the effect is more anatomical than salacious.

Dimensions give, and dimensions take away. Opera is famously understood as an art form that strives for the suspension of disbelief and for music’s ability to go inside the emotions. The recorded sound (opera in movie theaters is always a sonic gamble) in the screening room where I heard it provided a flat, harsh sound stage, and I listened with fingers in my ears about a third of the time. If the sound isn’t authentic, then an extra visual dimension tends to create an all-the-more-artificial virtual reality, since one major difference between the opera house and the movie theater is that live opera doesn’t damage your hearing.

Christine Rice is not a sexy Carmen but a fatalistic, world-weary one. From a feminist point of view, that is not uninteresting. She has a firm, slightly earthy, attractive mezzo-soprano. Bryan Hymel is an eager, angry, angst-ridden, mildly charismatic Don José, her besotted lover. Maija Kovalevska’s lovely soprano makes her a standout Micaëla, Don José’s good-girl girlfriend from home. Aris Argiris, the bullfighter Escamillo, doesn’t cut a colorful figure, theatrically or vocally. Constantinos Carydis is a forthright conductor.

But surely the voluptuous Antonacci and eye-catching Kaufmann of the original cast would have provided the ideal chemistry set for a proper 3-D opera experiment. Better still, if Royal Opera, of all companies, seeks shameless 3-D sensationalism, why did it not wait a few month for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s breast-fest, “Anna Nicole,” which these Brits just premiered?

‘Carmen in 3D’ MPAA rating: PG-13, Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (includes a 20-minute intermission). Playing: Saturday at 1,500 RealD 3D theaters worldwide.


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--Mark Swed