Few classical pieces have crossed over into the mainstream as successfully as Bizet's Carmen. There isn't a baby boomer alive who doesn't know either the "Habanera" or "The Toreador Song" from the seminal opera, thanks in part to Phil Silvers, his character famed Broadway producer Harold Hecuba, and the cast of Gilligan's Island. During one memorable bit of stranded castaway sitcom madness, the survivors of the S.S. Minnow put on a musical version of Hamlet, hoping to inspire their visiting dignitary. Instead, Hecuba watches their satiric take on the Bard (including music lifted from Carmen and Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman) and then leaves the atoll, stealing the idea for himself. Or maybe your remember a crudely fashioned Bart Simpson singing the substitute elementary schoolyard lyrics to "Toreador" ("Toreador/ Don't spit on the floor-a/ Use a cuspidor-a/ That's what it's for-a"). Of course, neither circumstance takes away from the composition's combination of passion and pain. The latest Blu-ray version by the noted Gran Teatre del Liceu proves just how powerful a sparse staging of same can truly be.
In the original libretto, Carmen is a gypsy girl selling cigarettes outside a Seville factory. She is arrested for attacking another and falls in love with her jailer, Don Jose. Eventually, she woos him away from his own betrothed, Micaela. Of course, this love doesn't last, and Carmen is soon taking up with famed bullfighter Escamillo. This destroys Jose, and he vows to win her back - or kill her so that no one else may have her.
In this update, Carmen is a prostitute (or, at the very least, sex for sale is inferred) while Micaela is a hippy with a camera. The references to bullfighting and military service are downplayed, while Jose and Escamillo represent the standard male dichotomy (good guy, bad boy) within a more timely circumstance. The plot is still the same, as are the emotions and the arias.
Like any known property, the success or failure of a production of Carmen always rests with the casting and the director. If either is out of whack, or working in a weird bit of self-referential delusion, the results can be disastrous. In this case, the Spanish settings of Seville are eliminated by the man in charge (controversial stager Calixto Bieito) and sparse, almost non-existent backdrops are used to suggest a more modern ethereal feel. We get a phone booth, a Mercedes, and little else. The costumes recall a contemporary fashion, while the characters have been transformed a bit. Carmen is now a call girl, with Escamillo a stylized star who dresses like a pimp. Within this slight deviation, Bieito plays around with themes like politics, race, and the misguided male machismo that thinks destroying an animal for sport is a sign of potency. All of this works, for the most part, since Carmen is an otherwise "ordinary" opera. While loaded with amazing music and firebrand emotions, the usual set-up is as staid and static as the artform it represents.
Additionally, Bieito found to amazing voices to fill his leading roles. As Don Jose, the doomed suitor subjected to Carmen's carnal contempt, Robert Alagna is excellent. His solid tone take us through the veiled bravado of the character, as well as a his fatal fascination with our haughty harlot. As Carmen, French chanteuse Beatrice Uria Monzon is stunning. She makes it very clear that our lead loves her sexual allure and can't wait to use said wiles on whomever will provide her comfort. During the second act, there is some unusually graphic simulated sex that proves this out. In addition, Bieito appears to be pitting Carmen against her captor Jose. It's a ballsy battle of wills which ends up destroying them both. On the other end of the spectrum, the ancillary roles are less successful. As Escamillo, Erwin Schrott delivers. As for Micaela, Marina Poplavskaya's performance is uneven at best. Perhaps she decided that this version of the character should be awkward and meek. Her vocal work sure is.
As for the new staging and sets, Bieito deserves praise, and a bit of criticism. Going skeletal is never going to win over the traditionalist, and it's clear that this director doesn't care about such complaints. He is hoping, somehow, that the combination of actors, singers, surreal pre-act capering (there's even a stripper moment before one Act) will capture the sensual essence of his vision. Indeed, this is one of the most fiery Carmen's ever staged, a whirlwind of passions contained only by the unique space Bieito creates. The lack of any real reference points - no baroque backdrop or slogan-laden posters - provides a real departure, allowing the acting and the singing to take true center stage. Of course, this is one director who can't leave well enough alone, and some of the choices are downright surreal. Still, Bizet's muse shines through, providing a powerful and provocative experience. This may not be your grandparent's Carmen - and in some ways, that's a very good thing indeed.
Not everything needs a high definition release. Sometimes, a regular digital presentation would do just as well. This is the case with Carmen. Since Bieito insists on a James Cameron level of blue in his lighting, the entire production seems almost monochrome in its visuals. Similarly, the camerawork is simplistic, ranging from long shots to close-ups, and visa versa. With the 1.77:1 image offered in a fairly detailed 1080i-AVC/MPEG-4 encode, the image should be stronger. We expect some minor issues, but that lack of contrasts and definition is a bit disheartening. This doesn't feel like a live show experience.
Keeping most of the vocal work up front and crystal clear, the audio aspect of this release is much better than the visual element. Of course, thanks to the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, we can witness the rollercoaster conceits of the casting. There is a real lack of "oomph" here, some of the singing reminiscent of a local theater production, not a first rate opera house extravaganza. Still, we get a good amount of spatial ambience and the orchestration is excellent. Of course, our leads excel, and in this case, that's probably all that matters.
If all you care about is the music, if all you need out of your Carmen is a careful recreation of Bizet's brilliant and lively score, this take on the material will more than meet your needs. While director Bieito would like you to focus on his own reimagining of the considered classic, all you really need are the arresting arias. This earns this otherwise ordinary Blu-ray presentation a Recommended rating. The lack of top notch tech specs and the uneven casting cost it further consideration. In the end, it's about time all us arrested adolescents stop singing about "neither a borrower nor a lender be" and recognize the majesty that is this arch musical. For all its ties to an aging artform, Carmen remains contemporary and vital, no matter the modifications.
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