Yesterday lemur_catta and I flogged out to the wastelands of North York to watch Carmen in 3D at the Empress Walk multiplex. It was a very different experience from a crowded Theatre 1 at the Scotiabank for the Met HD broadcasts as there were only about 20 people in the theatre. This is understandable enough as this one wasn’t live and is playing twice per day for a week.
The performance was recorded earlier this season at the Royal Opera House. It’s the Zambello production that was released on DVD and BluRay by Opus Arte with Anna-Catharina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann in the leading roles. This recording uses a much younger and less well known cast. Christine Rice plays Carmen, Bryan Hymel is Don Jose, Maija Kovalevska sings Micaela and Aris Argiris is Escamillo. The conductor is Constantinos Carydis. So, very much a repertoire revival cast and thus perhaps an odd choice for a high risk venture such as ROH’s first foray into 3D but see general comments about opera films below.
The production is very conventional; period costumes, animals (including a horse in a bar) and so on but it’s directed in some detail and by no means a repertoire “park and bark” performance. It’s fine if unexceptional. So what does 3D do for it? When it’s used with restraint it definitely adds a sense of depth. It’s never “realistic” as it gives more depth than would ever get sitting in the house. Even up in the nosebleeds there is more foreshortening than in the broadcast. The real trouble is it isn’t used with restraint. Give an opera video director a gimmick and they will go nuts. They are bad enough without gimmicks. We had acrobats tumbling into the audience, confetti apparently falling on the first few rows of the stalls and, weirdest of all, close up disembodied head, or head and torso, shots of singers apparently floating over the orchestra pit. This peaked during Micaela’s final aria where she got a sort of Joan of Arc like treatment made weirder by the fact that as they faded back to a more realistic shot there was “real” Micaela clearly on stage and “radiant” Micaela floating around in the ether in front of her. The technology also seems to cause a few focus problems in unexpected places. In contrast to the visual exaggerations the sound stage was quite flat. It might almost have been a good stereo recording from the 1960s and it was much more restrained than the close miking used in the MetHD broadcasts. I think that’s a plus but it was somewhat at odds with the visuals. There was generally less distortion than on recent Met shows too. I’m not sure whether that’s a function of the theatre or the recording or the fact that Carmen isn’t an especially noisy opera.
So with the usual caveats about reviewing singing on a recording here are my thoughts on the performances. Christine Rice was very good indeed. She is a genuine mezzo which I think is preferable in this role and she sang with a lot of passion. She also has the looks and the acting ability for the role. There were definite echoes of Maria Ewing there. Bryan Hymel was fine as Don Jose. He is very much a lyric rather than a dramatic tenor so musically it was quite different from hearing Kaufmann in the role but quite appropriate. He, too, acted well and looked the part. Chemistry between the two was pretty good though not perhaps as smoky as Kaufmann and Antonacci. Maija Kovalevska made a very appealing Micaela. She manages to look and sound like a young girl which few singers in the role manage. She sang sweetly and accurately and it made for an interesting dramatic point. This Micaela is no match at all for Carmen as a woman, as an object of desire (though she is certainly pretty). She really does represent the respectable life that Don Jose rejects. She’s totally believable as the little girl from the village that his mother wants him to marry. That’s an aspect of the plot that rather gets lost with a more obviously mature Micaela. Watching parts of the Antonacci version again points this up. A soprano Carmen opposite a more mature and powerful Micaela (Norah Amsellem) doesn’t have nearly the dramatic contrast. The one disappointment in the casting was Aris Argyris’ Escamillo. He sings well enough but there’s no swagger. He just doesn’t convince as the toreador who Carmen falls head over heels in love with. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo on disk shows how it should be done! Orchestra and chorus and the minor roles were all fine. Overall, I’d say it was a good but not a great Carmen. There are better versions available on disk (Ewing for example or Garanca (my review of the HD broadcast) if you buy into the “Carmen in love with Death” vibe of that production) but it’s worth seeing or, of course, the Antonacci/Kaufmann version of this production.
So, another opera house gets on the cinema bandwagon with “3D” rather than “Live in HD” as the USP. What are they trying to do and are they succeeding? Is it supposed to increase the audience for live opera? Is it just an additional revenue stream? I don’t think there is any evidence that the former is happening and we are told that the Met is just now breaking even (in season 5) on its broadcasts. No consumer goods company would willingly launch a product that took five years to reach break even. I don’t think they know what they are trying to achieve. They seem to me to be like IT firms who have management consulting arms and can’t make up their minds whether they are a profit centre or a loss leader for integration work. Strategic clarity is rare!
This lack of clarity has practical consequences. If the aim is to bring more people into the theatre then, clearly, the product should represent the live experience as faithfully as possible. Close ups of the principals’ tonsils are only going to mislead the person who does show up to the opera house and is looking at the stage from the Upper Circle. The sound values too are going to create a false impression of what an opera house sounds like. Anyone who has been following my reviews of opera in cinemas will know what I think they need to do; faff about less and give us more of a “best seat in the house” view of the show. One wonders in fact whether opera company GMs bother to check out what their product looks and sounds like in a movie theatre.
Conversely, if the product is a stand alone film for a new audience I don’t really see the need to record live productions. There have been plenty of films of operas and they have used a variety of “tricks”. One can film on location (and have the singers recorded in the studio and lip synched too if one like). One can use actors who look the part and dub in the voices. One can use singers who are visually the part but too lightweight for the role in the opera house. All of these things have been done more or less successfully in the past. Perhaps, ultimately, the big thing about just documenting a live performance is that relatively little extra expense is involved.
I guess, bottom line, I’m not totally convinced by the whole “opera in cinema” thing. I think it could be very good if they put the video directors on a tighter leash but right now I think one is better off going to see a live show, even if it’s a bunch of young enthusiasts with a few video projections in a disused warehouse. I’ve got at least as much pleasure and insight out of shows by Opera Erratica and the Royal Conservatory as out of 9/10 star studded, multi million dollar production broadcasts.
For reference, here’s the annoying Blu-ray trailer: