Carmen in 3D

Georges Bizet Carmen opera to libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. This was a 2010 revival, directed at the Royal Opera House by Duncan Macfarland, of the 2006 Francesca Zambello production. Stars Christine Rice (Carmen), Bryan Hymel (Don José), Aris Argiris (Escamilio), Maija Kovalevska (Micaëla), Nicolas Courjal (Zuniga), Dawid Kimberg (Moralès), Elena Xanthoudakis (Frasquita), Paula Murrihy (Mercédès), Adrian Clarke (Le Dancaïre), Harry Nicoll (Le Remendado), Caroline Lena Olsson (Lillas Pastia), and Anthony de Baeck (Guide). Constantinos Carydis conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Co-Concert Master Sergey Levitin), the Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director Renato Balsadonna), and the Children of Trinity Boys Choir and Tiffin Girls' Choir (Choirmasters David Swinson and Simon Ferris). Designs by Tanya McCallin; lighting by Paule Constable; choreography by Arthur Pita; revival fight direction by Natalie Dakin of the 2006 fight scenes by Mike Loades; photography directed by Sean Macleod Phillips; directed by Julian Napier; produced by Phil Streater. Released in 2011, 3D disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.   Grade: B

This 3D Carmen was shot in 2010 as a motion picture on film at 24 frames per second. It's the same production (with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann) that the Royal Opera House shot (in 29.97 digital video) in 2006 and released in 2D on the Decca label in 2008. To reduce the risk of confusion, I'll call the Antonacci/Kaufmann versian the 2008 show. I'll call the 3D version the 2011 show.

The 2011 3D show uses the same sets, props, many of the chorus members, and three of the minor credited singers as those in the 2008 2D show. 9 of the singers in 3D, including all the major stars, are different from those who appeared in 2008 2D show.

The 2008 2D show, which I graded "A+," is one of the best opera videos ever made. So the 3D version starts off with a lot of wind in its sails. We are primarily interested, of course, in how this comes over in 3D. But we will also have to compare the two discs for aspects of the production other than the 2D/3D factor.

The 2011 3D show was probably shot with state-of-the-art movie cameras which produced pictures with superlative resolution. This was probably done to partly offset the loss of illumination that is a major drawback of the 3D process.  Most 3D viewers will turn their TV displays to "bright" for 3D shows (this is called "Dynamic" on my Samsung Plasma display). The result is a 3D picture that is sharper and clearer than the 2D video even though it is a bit darker. It happens that many of the scenes in both Carmen productions are in subdued light. So basic picture quality in 3D holds up pretty well in comparison to the 2008 2D video, which can look a bit hazy at times. I should also mention that any time the 3D camera moves very much, there seems to be a faint, brief motion blur before the picture snaps into focus. So lets call it a draw between the 2008 2D and 2011 3D as to picture quality.

We have the same orchestra in both shows but with different conductors. Surprisingly, the sound on the 2008 2D show (5.1 dts-MA) seems brighter and more faithful than the 2011 3D movie's Dolby Digital surround sound.

Now let's move on to 2008 2D vs. 2011 3D picture content.

The director of the 2008 2D video uses a mix of some full and part stage shots with many close and extreme close-up shots (like a movie). There is a lot of emphasis on the acting of the cast and framing beautiful art-photo quality views of each scene. Everything is aimed at showing the drama of the players' emotions as the music progresses. There are innumerable wonderful segments such as Don José's agony before his execution, the adorable children commandeering the town square, the dirty, bored cigarette girls spilling out of the factory door looking for action, Carmen's earthy sex appeal, the fortune-telling card games, Micaëla's prayer,  the parade of the matadors, and Carmen's draining death struggle.

In the 2011 3D show, the camera pulls way back. This is done, of course, to give plenty of opportunity for celebrating the illusion of depth. The director moves the players away from horizontal formations into more spread out positions. Often the main actors seem as though they are almost in the HT while the others are far away in the background. Sometimes this is effective, but other times it points out how thin the chorus really is on the big stage at the ROH. I will, of course, forgive the director for such silly stunts as the officer sticking his battle sword into my face and the rose petals floating into the HT. But it's harder to forgive a very real problem created by many of these images with a lot of depth: the actors in 3D are much smaller than in the 2006 2D version. Because they are smaller, it's harder to see the expressions on their faces;  and the drama of the sad story is woefully diluted. In my view, the only scenes where the benefits of 3D are valuable are the gipsy dances.  (The 2008 2D disc has only one dance, the famous scene at the tavern. The 2011 3D has yet another neat dance in Act III with all the women showing their knife-fighting skills.) Otherwise, I feel the loss of intimacy in 3D is far too high a price to pay for getting an illusion of depth. 

All 4 major roles in the 2008 2D show are played by stronger performers than those who appear in the 2011 3D version. Christine Rice is more sexually provocative than Antonacci, but I suspect Antonacci could be fully competitive in the raw sex department if the director asked for it. Aris Argiris maybe has a sweeter voice than D'Arcangelo, but if Aris wants to do this role on film again, I urge him first to go to the gym and work for a couple of months on his core.

In summary, the 2011 3D ROH Carmen is an interesting experiment with plenty of good singing and production values to warrant buying the disc if you already have 3D gear in your HT. But I wouldn't upgrade gear to see this. Nor would I skip the wonderful 2008 2D version in favor of going 3D. The 3D version does suggest that ballet and dance will be the fine arts to benefit the most from the new technology.  And if the ROH had been able to shoot a film with the same video content as the 2008 2D version + 3D realism, the result might have been been compelling. The next test for the industry is to shoot an opera in 3D without trying to use it for a special effect. For now, I'll call this Carmen 3D a nice try and give it the grade of "B."