You could be forgiven for thinking that the world’s single most popular opera is a work by Verdi, or Mozart, or even Puccini. Strangely, however, the title is held by Georges Bizet’s 1875 French-language homage to the hotblooded Spanish gypsy woman known as Carmen. Or perhaps it’s not so strange, as the songs and music truly are magnificent.
It is a quite simple story of rather cliché complications between lovers, but good music, singing and acting can make, and has made, this opera an immortal classic. Taking place in Seville, the heart of Andalucia, Carmen and many other young women work in a cigarette factory. It’s so hot that the women have to be scantily clad, and so the interior of the factory is off-limits to men. When the women get off work, the hot Spanish nights are spent in amorous courtship and love-play between the women and the local young men. Carmen has many suitors, but is a free gypsy spirit who insists on always being the chooser rather than the choice. When she gets into a fight with another woman at the factory, army constable Don José is sent to arrest her. Carmen seduces him in order to be released, and he falls for her hard. Charmed by his devotion to her (and his good looks), Carmen, too, falls for Don José. As their first night together plays out, Don José is called back to the army barracks for role-call by a trumpet fanfare, and they have their first fight. Carmen is enraged that he would leave her so readily just as they are about to make love, and he tries to explain, at some length, what a dilemma this is for him. Eventually he decides to join the gypsy gang that Carmen belongs to and desert from the army, but Carmen still has not forgiven him and is no longer sure that she loves him. He, however, is deeply devoted to her, and has left behind his young nigh-fiancee from his home village. Arguably, the mightiest man in Seville is the celebrated bullfighter (torero) Escamillo, and he, too, has set his eye on Carmen. Carmen finds it difficult to resist such a man, and starts giving in to him. Don José reasons like many jealous men have done: If he can’t have her, no one can, and he thrusts a knife into her, killing her.
This Blu-ray release is a beautifully restored version of Francesco Rosi’s 1984 movie adaptation of this amazing opera, and I should be very surprised if it is not the best motion picture version available. Placido Domingo makes an iconic Don José – he is almost too manly, but he makes it convincing that Carmen would fall for him. Julia Migenes as Carmen is of course the center piece around which the movie revolves. Beautiful, sultry and freckled, she is the free yet passionate spirit that many might see as being close to a femme fatale, but, as it turns out, it is Don José who is the fatal suitor. Carmen herself has all but a few of the best songs and arias, and this is goose-bump territory par excellence. The best effect in classical music is achieved when all the elements play together so well that no single voice or piece of instrumentation dominates – when you can hear the reason that each and every element of the ensemble needs to be there. In Rosi’s production, Carmen’s first big song in particular, L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, has this effect. The first chords creep up on you, barely noticeable, and then Migenes’ thrilingly beautiful performance swells up, letting the emotions of the listeners swell right along with it. Breathtaking!
The ebullience does not abate, and the brilliant climax of act 1, Près des remparts de Séville, is another triumph for Julia Migenes, as well as for Domingo. The opera is very full of military-style music to enhance and animate the native milieu of Don José, and some tunes sometimes remind me of pieces of Verdi operas composed twenty years earlier – if Bizet did draw some inspiration from those, well, good, for they are very well worthy!
I have seen a handful of other Carmen productions, but none to rival Francesco Rosi’s. The other notable Carmen DVD, as far as I am aware, is the 1967 von Karajan production, starring the great Grace Bumbry. I recall it as being a bit dull towards the end, whereas Rosi’s production holds the attention expertly and is far more authentic, thanks in large part to the magnificent on-location scenery, dominated by a convincing 1875 urban atmosphere, grand landscapes and magnificent caves – in short, a joy to behold.
The Blu-ray disc is, of course, subtitled in English, and has two extra features. A 48-minute shooting diary with cast interviews, and a 13-minute feature about the sets. I can say with confidence that even the greatest opera connoisseur will be happy with this release.
Director: Francesco Rosi
Cast: Julia Migenes, Placido Domingo, Ruggero Raimondi and others
Runtime: 155 min.
Country: France / Italy