Sunday, February 20, 2011

Review - Carmen 3D

What does 3D really bring to the film experience? Some filmgoers have embraced the presence of a third dimension in their cinematic lives, while others continue to claim it is nothing more than a distraction, a gimmick and an empty moneymaking venture. Either way, 3D is here to stay for the time being, so the best we can hope for is that the technique is applied with skill and intelligence, and in a manner that really adds something to the viewing experience. A prime example of this is Carmen 3D, a new film that uses its additional depth to approximate a theatrical experience for us within the confines of a cinema. The film is a recording of Carmen as staged at the Royal Opera House, and both in its content and its presentation, it is a captivating experience.

Carmen 3D will be released in cinemas in March, and this distribution will hopefully allow people who have never attended the opera before (whether for geographical reasons, the prohibitive cost, or simply because it is perceived as an elite, esoteric pastime) the opportunity to experience it for the first time. Georges Bizet's opera is also a good place for neophytes to start, as much of the music, notably Carmen's Habanera or the Toreador song, may already be familiar in the same way that certain lines from Shakespeare are known by those who have never read or seen one of his plays. The storyline is a relatively simplistic one, focusing on a seductive gypsy woman who inspires obsessive love in her suitors, but the opera's themes of love, hatred and jealousy feel universal, and it is the telling of the tale, rather than the tale itself, that is truly extraordinary.

While the overture plays, director Julian Napier opens his film with some glimpses of the cast in their dressing room and behind the curtain, putting the final touches to their preparations in the moments before the opera begins. Once the curtain has been raised, and we see the large cast fill the stage, the benefits of the film's 3D approach become apparent, giving us a sense of depth and space, as if we had a stage in front of us rather than a cinema screen. Credit for the production must be split between two people: Francesca Zambello, who directed the lively, raunchy and powerful onstage performance, and Julian Napier, who orchestrated the 3D camerawork. Napier knows when to move his camera elegantly and when to cut, and he does so successfully without disrupting the rhythm of the opera.

The greatest tool at Napier's disposal is the close-up, allowing us to witness the emotion in the performers' faces as they passionately sing songs of joy and pain. I was hugely impressed by the exceptional performances turned in by Bryan Hymel as Don José, the soldier who foolishly falls head over heels for Carmen, and the beautiful soprano Maija Kovalevska as Micaëla, the smalltown girl who loves him; but it is Carmen herself who rightfully dominates the show. Watching Christine Rice in this role is an electrifying experience. She brings an astonishing emotional force to her performance, displaying a remarkable vocal range, and while she is a magnetic presence every minute she is on stage, a couple of individual sequences are particularly worthy of praise. The first is her introduction, in which she scandalously taunts and tempts the soldiers, and another powerful scene occurs at the end of Act 2, when she persuades the disgraced Don José to run away with her gang of bandits. The scene that really struck me, however, was the one in which Carmen turns over tarot cards to predict her future, and Napier's camera allows us to see Rice's eyes filling with tears as she learns of her tragic fate.

I doubt you'll see many female performances as good as this on a cinema screen all year, and Carmen 3D as a whole is as exciting and satisfying a cultural experience as I've had in some time. To the uninitiated, the sound of a two-and-a-half hour opera might sound forbidding, but I was enthralled by the drama, and those hours flew by. I wouldn't be surprised to see 3D opera emerge as a regular feature at cinemas around the country; in fact, another event is taking place this week which should draw plenty of curious customers.

On February 23rd, Mike Figgis will direct a new production of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which will be performed by the English National Opera at the Coliseum while being simultaneously beamed live into 3D cinemas, and screened on Sky Arts and Sky 3D. It is an ambitious undertaking, but the chief fascination for me with this production lies in the presence of Mike Figgis, a daring and mercurial filmmaker whose absence has been felt from cinema for the past few years. It has the potential to be a very special night, and one that should appeal to both opera connoisseurs and adventurous cinephiles.

Carmen 3D will be released in cinemas on March 5th 2011.

Lucrezia Borgia will be performed live at the Coliseum on Wednesday February 23rd, while also playing on Sky Arts and Sky 3D, and at selected cinemas around the country.