Georges Bizet: Carmen, Blu-ray (2008)

by | Dec 10, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

BIZET: Carmen, Blu-ray (2008)
Featuring: The Glyndebourne Festival Opera, conducted by Philippe Jordan
Starring: Anne Sofie von Otter, Marcus Haddock, Laurent Naouri, Lisa Milne
Studio: Opus Arte OA BD7015 D [Distr. by Naxos]

Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 color, 1080i
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby TrueHD Stereo

Extras: Featurettes, Illustrated Synopsis, Cast Features, Booklet with short story by novelist Jeanette Winterson

Feature Length: 229 minutes

Rating: ****1/2
When Georges Bizet’s famed opera Carmen premiered in Paris on March 3, 1875 to mixed reviews, there was a general sense that the subject material was a bit too risqué. None other than Tchaikovsky, who witnessed an early performance, proclaimed that in ten years’ time, it would be the most popular opera in the world – and time proved him correct. But in only two short months, Bizet was dead at only age 36, and he died believing that Carmen had been a failure. Bizet had included dialogue throughout the opera that served to improve the story’s exposition; apparently, his benefactors were unhappy with the dialogue, and on the day prior to his death, Bizet had signed a contract to compose recitatives to replace the offending dialogue. After his death, Bizet’s friend Ernest Giraud wrote the recitatives, and the restaged Carmen did eventually became the world’s most popular opera, surviving in that form until the present day.

Rodney Milnes, writing for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, described Giraud’s work on the recitatives as “irredeemably third-rate” and  “workmanlike,” and “a perversion of the masterpiece that Bizet wrote.” The recitatives, he felt, muddled the story and robbed it of any dramatic tension so necessary to the plot. So when Glyndebourne decided to stage Bizet’s original, it would, for all practical purposes, represent the first time modern audiences would see the opera that so impressed Tchaikovsky. This excellent disc from Opus Arte documents that 2002 production, and it’s truly a treasure, with not only the full length opera, but also a trove of bonus materials as well – very unusual for a full-length opera disc.

Of course, the story revolves around Carmen, who’s one of the “cigarette girls” from the local cigarette factory. She’s a saucy number, and Anne Sofie von Otter does a remarkably good job of conveying her full-tilt eroticism. Carmen becomes embroiled in a fight in the factory with another girl, whose face is cut, and Don Jose, a soldier, is ordered to tie up Carmen and take her to prison. He’s rather smitten with Carmen, and is soon persuaded by her charms to let her go. For this, Don Jose is sent to prison in her stead. Carmen later learns of his release, and decides that she’s in love with Don Jose, but not before Escamillo, the bullfighter, has propositioned her. She convinces Don Jose to desert from the army, and they are forced by circumstance to team up with some smugglers. Later, in the mountains, Carmen and Don Jose quarrel; Escamillo reappears, and he and Don Jose fight over Carmen. Don Jose learns of the impending death of his mother, and he departs to her village; Carmen leaves with Escamillo, and later escorts him as he enters the bullring. Don Jose returns, and begs Carmen to leave with him; she refuses, and in his rage he stabs her to death, then confesses to the crime.

To say that this new staging of Carmen is a revelation is a true understatement; the dialogue makes the onstage action much easier to follow, and truly helps with the plot exposition. The performances are nothing short of magnificent, from the remarkably good singing to the bravura of the orchestra, conducted superbly by Philippe Jordan; some of my favorite portions of the presentation were the Preludes and Entr’actes, where we got to actually witness this fiery conductor at work! The Act Two setting is nothing short of miraculous, with some of the opera’s most memorable numbers. Anne Sofie von Otter’s steamy rendering of the “Gypsy Song” is simply breathtaking, and the choreography of the dancers is just incredible to behold. Laurent Naouri’s Escamillo has all the requisite bravura in his delivery of the “Toreador Song,” and when Anne Sofie von Otter hits the high note at the song’s end, the effect is thrilling, to say the least. Every aspect of the production is opera at its finest.

From a technical standpoint, the disc is a bit less than perfection; while the image has a really good, film-like quality, there’s a fair amount of inconsistency in the image clarity, especially on the long shots. Most of the close-ups are quite clear, but many of the long shots are a tad fuzzy. I also felt that, for a relatively dark production, the image didn’t possess the highest degree of contrast or detail, especially during the orchestra shots, where the various members were often seemingly bathed in almost total darkness. I also felt that the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, while really quite good, was perhaps a tad bass-shy. And while I would definitely have preferred a slightly sharper image, with slightly more full-bodied sound, these are very minor quibbles, indeed, and only marginally affected my overall impression of the package.

Any shortcomings technically on this disc were more than made up for by the excellent offering of bonus materials, which, once I started watching, I just couldn’t stop! First of all, there’s a visual synopsis to guide you through the action. The segment on the choreography was superb, and the music segment with conductor Philippe Jordan was revelatory – I’m truly impressed with him, and I’ll definitely look for anything with his involvement in the future! And surprisingly enough, one of the most entertaining featurettes was the one on the gardens of Glyndebourne – it’s truly amazing that the opera house is located in such an idyllic setting, with sheep grazing all about magnificently cultured English gardens. Very highly recommended!

 – Tom Gibbs

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