On Sunday, Feb. 6, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival said its closing goodbye to a small but zealous afternoon crowd.
In contrast to the star-heavy award events which marked most of the festival’s festivities (stars including James Franco, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Nolan, Colin Firth and other people accustomed to patting themselves on the back), the closing event was the world premiere of composer George Bizet’s “Carmen in 3D,” a collaboration between the Royal Opera House and RealD Inc. This drew a calmer crowd, though perhaps with a more earnest interest in the event.
Elena Xanthoudakis, a cast member, was the first and one of the few VIP attendees who tried for cinematic glamour in her costume choice. As she posed for photographers, her curve-hugging black gown reminded on-lookers that opera singers are not limited to chubby German women. Xanthoudakis’ role as Frasquita in “Carmen” helped to emphasize the sex appeal of opera.
“She’s a big flirt,” Xanthoudakis said of her charcter. “She’ll do whatever it takes to get what she needs.”
The sexiness of “Carmen” is one of the reasons director Julian Napier and the Royal Opera House chose it to be their first performance captured in 3D. Taking place in Seville, Spain, the plot follows a siren-like gypsy named Carmen as she successfully seduces a moralistic military officer, Don José. Don José becomes infatuated with Carmen, sacrificing his chances at a respectable life in order to follow her through rural Spain on a smuggling expedition. By way of tarot card reading, bull-fighting and other glamorous Spanish novelties, the story touches on aspects of love and sex, and, most pointedly, conceptualizes fatal jealousy and wanting only what one can’t have.
Francesa Zambello, the production’s stage director, said this rich and decidedly gypsy plotline creates a basis for the opera’s appeal as both a stage and cinematic production.
“It’s got dance, color, movement, animals, love, vengeance, amazing characters… the ingredients that make any story great,” she said. “The 3D will bring the epic and the intimate together.”
Stephen Michael, the managing director for the Royal Opera House, saw the opportunity more as a means of publicity. Dressed rather dapperly in a gray suit and speaking with a slight British accent, Michael elaborated on the business savvy in choosing to film “Carmen.”
“It’s an extremely well-known opera,” he said. “And our ambition is to get good, worldwide distribution.”
In fact, the group expanded on this theme throughout the night. As Zambello introduced the film just before the screening, she emphasized the film’s efforts to make opera accessible.
After viewing the screening, that effort was obvious. As a person who grew up listening to opera (and, for better or for worse, leading most of my adolescent life according to its bizarre plot lines and morals), I have seen a progression in the amount of sexuality put into the staging and production of “Carmen.” The Royal Opera House production seems to be a culmination, equipped with a good-looking cast, ample use of bustiers and plenty of making out and sexual innuendo.
“Carmen” is a notoriously difficult opera to cast due to the vitality of its characters, and the director managed to cast the production fairly well. Even the singer who portrays Carmen, Christine Rice, whose mezzo voice lacks some of the youth one imagines for the gypsy seductress, assuages the audience’s doubts with her acting skills (which is important, because a cinematic, 3D film of the production showed every facial expression in its intimate entirety).
The casting of the token (in the effeminate, operatic sense) sexy guy, the toreador, did leave a tad to be desired. Aris Argiris’s performance verges on mundane amid a production of color and sensuality. Still, any minor flubs are mitigated by the beautiful decadence of the production. The house’s massive stage can host chickens, horses and a large cast. Such a cast gives the production an overwhelming and grandiose quality, and after almost the entire cast dances on tables and causes general upheaval onstage for the opera’s renowned gypsy song, it becomes pretty clear that “Carmen in 3D” is a damn good idea.
Both the stage production of “Carmen” and the film itself are well done. While it seems that the theater-goers watching the theatrical production were appreciative, it’s a delight to be able to see the details and nuances of the opera intimately. The camera even travels behind the scenes as the nervous but theatre-high opera stars prepare themselves for stage.
So the Royal Opera House is hoping to rejuvenate the public’s interest in opera… but will it work? I couldn’t help but notice that even the announcers of the event themselves seemed to take the premiere less seriously than the festival’s other events, sometimes botching their unrehearsed-seeming closing speeches. However, the success in the Royal Opera House’s endeavors to make opera accessible will be more accurately measured when the film hits RealD theaters this March. So, those of you looking for some iconic culture in your 3D movie theater experience, mark your calendars.