Carmen is one of those stories that seems to have been around for ever, though the opera dates from 1875 and Prosper Mérimée's original novella from 1852. (A film of the novella would be interesting: it's drier and more ironic than the opera. The character of Micaëla, played in this film by Faith Esham, is a rather sentimental invention of the librettists.) However, something must have been in the air in 1983-84: not only did the present film come out, but there were also Carlos Saura's flamenco version, a 1983 film from Sweden, not to mention Peter Brook's film of his stage production The Tragedy of Carmen, let alone Godard's First Name Carmen.
Pride of place must go to Francesco Rosi's version of the opera. (It was marketed as Bizet's Carmen in the US, but the title on the film is simply Carmen.) This is more than a simple recording of a stage production, it's a film first and foremost. Opera purists may quibble, not least in the casting of a soprano in the repertoire's most famous mezzo-soprano role. Filmed operas aren't all that common; the nearest rivals are Franco Zeffirelli's turgid and chocolate-boxy films of La Traviata and Otello. Rosi is a much better director than Zeffirelli, and his use of real Andalusian locations adds considerably to the film's impact. The mix of authentic backdrops and characters breaking into song may take some people time to get used to, though the music (played by the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Lorin Maazel) is of course wonderful with several arias by now firmly embedded in the Western consciousness. The more squeamish animal lovers should beware some bullfighting footage, much of it under the opening credits.
Julia Migenes (this is the only film where she's billed with a double-barrelled surname)is an American opera singer who has acted occasionally in films, including at least one other lead role. But this is far and away her finest work on celluloid. A natural soprano, she trained her voice for ten months to sing in a mezzo range. But just as importantly, she (and the filmmakers) don't forget that this is ultimately, a film about overwhelming, even transgressive erotic attraction – more than other Carmens I've seen, Migenes turns up the heat and makes us see and feel why Don José (Placido Domingo) falls uncontrollably and tragically in love with her. Domingo – who had played Don José some 150 times on stage – has been criticised for giving a wooden performance. But then José is a wooden character: hidebound, unprepared and unable to cope with what Carmen arouses in him. Ruggero Raimondi does well with the smaller role of the bullfighter Escamillo, who wins Carmen from José.
Columbia's DVD is presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, resulting in thin black bars at the sides of the picture, plus on a 4:3 television thicker ones above and below. I'm not convinced that's the correct ratio: both times I saw this film in a cinema (the second time, I was the projectionist) it was shown in 1.75:1 and seemed miscomposed at that ratio. The narrower aspect ratio may be a directorial preference, of course, though there's no indication of that. Either way, the transfer does full justice to the late Pasqualino de Santis's photography, catching the dusty yellows and a recurring use of red (from the flowers in the factory girls' hair near the start to the dress Carmen wears at the end). There's very little to complain about, with some aliasing – on prison bars, and the yellow piping in the soldiers' uniforms – as a minor drawback.
The sound is the original Dolby Surround soundtrack, and best listened to with your amp switched to a Prologic settings. The soundtrack was recorded on digital equipment, so a remix to 5.1 might have been done to make the sound a little "brighter". However, this is what you would have heard in a cinema. There are some sound effects in left and right, but the surrounds are used solely for the music. The subtitles are in yellow, which is a good idea considering the amount of yellow and white in shot, and are easy to read. There are twenty-four chapter stops, an adequate number. The running time above includes about three minutes of play-out music.
The only extras are two trailers. The first is of Carmen itself, in 4:3 and mono. The second is of The Dream Life of Angels, in 4:3 and Dolby Surround. This is an excellent film, but its only relevance here is that it's another Columbia TriStar R1 release. And you have to ask why Columbia is including a restricted-audience trailer on a PG-rated DVD? (I know that the great majority of Carmen viewers will be adults, but that's beside the point.) Mind you, the reason for the Restricted tag on the trailer, brief sexual activity, shouldn't worry parents of anyone much over thirteen or so. Interestingly, both trailers avoid including any dialogue, presumably to avoid putting anyone off from watching a subtitled film!
Carmen, although a little overlong, is in my opinion among the best opera films ever made, admittedly without very much competition. The picture is very good and the sound satisfactory, but some more extras would have been nice. The Region 2 disc is identical, so the usual PAL/NTSC issues will govern your choice. The Region 2 has undergone the usual PAL speed-up, but I don't know if it has been pitch-corrected or not. Still, for fans of the opera (and for operatic novices this Carmen is a good place to start) I can still recommend this disc.