I think the key performance in the film is that of soprano Julia Migenes in the title role. In terms of physical attributes, Migenes has the kind of figure that makes it credible Carmen could drive a man to ruin his life. And just as importantly, Migenes makes Carmen's provocative behavior convincing, as when she rubs tobacco on the inside of her bare thigh. Finally, Migenes is able to get a teasing quality in her singing voice, as in her performance of the "Habañera," the famous song beginning "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" that compares love to an untamable wild bird.
The man who ruins his life over Carmen is Don José, ably performed by Plácido Domingo. I would say Domingo's main contributions to the film are his screen presence, competent acting, and splendid tenor voice. After getting involved with Carmen, army corporal Don José goes into a downward spiral, first spending a month in jail, then becoming a deserter and a smuggler, and finally committing murder.
There are two memorable supporting roles in "Carmen," and I am impressed with the performances of the singer-actors in both of them. One of those roles is that of the bullfighter Escamillo, filled admirably by bass Ruggero Raimondi, particularly when he sings the celebrated "Toreador's Song." The other role is Micaëla, the wholesome, gentle-hearted woman who loves Don José. For me, Faith Esham's soprano voice captures Micaëla's sweetness.
But Bizet wrote great music that showcased not only individual performers, but also orchestra and chorus, and my hat is off to Rosi for keeping my eyes occupied with visually interesting sequences during such passages. For example, while the orchestral "Prelude" is heard, the film shows bullfight victory jubilation and a strange religious observance. As a second example, the lyrical "Factory Girls Cigarette Chorus" is accompanied by an idyllic scene showing the men of the city mingling in a pleasant plaza with the women who stream out of the tobacco factory.
I find the opera's story, which is set in 19th-century Seville, to be an emotionally powerful one. The free-spirited Carmen is at work in the factory when she deliberately cuts a co-worker during a squabble. She's arrested and placed in the custody of Don José, a soldier in the local army unit whose primary duty is law enforcement. But smitten with her, he helps her escape. After serving a month's incarceration for his actions, he hooks up with her at a tavern on the city's outskirts.
When next we catch up with Carmen and Don José, they are in the mountains between Seville and Gibraltar, and they are part of a large-scale smuggling operation. They have been lovers for some time, but Carmen has tired of him. After Micaëla brings word to Don José that his mother is dying, Carmen is relieved to be rid of him when he goes home.
The opera's fourth and final act takes place at the bullring back in Seville. By now, Carmen is in love with the matador Escamillo, but Don José is stalking her. While Escamillo wears down a wounded and confused bull inside the arena, Carmen confronts the distraught Don José outside. When she tells him its over between them and throws a ring he once gave her at him, he stabs her to death. The movie ends with Don José confessing to the murder and awaiting arrest.
I am not an opera expert, and I can't say whether or not other DVD versions of "Carmen" are musically superior to Rosi's. But what I can say is that Rosi's visual style, the location shooting in Andalusia, and a cast that looks and sounds right for the roles are superbly matched to Bizet's evocative music and the story's primal intensity.
Alas, there are no bonus materials of any consequence on the "Carmen" DVD, but below I've listed all the special features.
- DVD Release Date: December 28, 1999
- Feature Run Time: 2 hours 35 minutes
- MPAA Rating: PG
- Widescreen (1.66:1), Color
- French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
- English Subtitles
- Spanish Subtitles
- French Subtitles
- Theatrical Trailer