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Silent Movie Opera (Carmen, 1910): Music Theatre for three singers, electronics and video

posted on 2023-06-08, 09:59 authored by Nicholas TillNicholas Till
This is probably about typical of the sort of thing you find at BAC Opera, a summer festival at the Battersea Arts Centre on Lavender Hill which might be as you'll get to an operatic Woodstock. It's a work in progress based on two weeks' development, and it pushes an interesting idea as far as it can go on a shoestring budget. The funding seems to come from the ENO Studio and Wimbledon School of Art. The starting point is an eight minute long film of Mallarme's Carmen, made in France in 1910 with Regina Badet as Carmen. Badet is credited as "of l'Opera Comique", so I assume she's an opera singer, though the plot details added to the opera are missing. She certainly does the standard gestures with passion. The film consists of seven or eight scenes, each introduced by a title. This is by way of being the comic strip Carmen. The camera is fixed to give full-length middle distance views of the actors, and the composition and gestures other than Badet's look like those of the stage. There is some not bad small-scale crowd work (nothing like that in Maurice Elvey's Lloyd George, made ten years later), and a dreadful ensemble hands-in-the-air when Jose kills the officer. The overall result is tidier than Griffiths at his worst, but lacks any kind of grandeur. The performance began, after a scratchy recording of Au bainlieue de Seville, with a showing of the film without music, projected on both sides of a screen positioned diagonally across the auditoriusm. This mainly shows how badly the film needs the music, and highlights the irony of a Carmen in particular without a song. A second run through was intercut with video of the singers preparing the performance and accompanied by the three of them live, moving around the auditorium. The process, repeated for each scene, was that the performers froze and replayed a big gesture in the film, pulled out its rhythm, discussed its emotional loading in terms of the codes of deviance Carmen embodies, and one singer began to work on existing music that might accompany it by singing along with a record. Once sweeping, graceful gesture got Summertime, and there were a couple of Ella Fitzgerald numbers. The performers in the auditorium sang a version of the prepared music over this, and at times reacted to their own discussion or each other's performance in the video. Finally, the chosen gestures were shown together in order, accompanied by a live performance of more composed vocal music developed from the previous sections. This final section was quite powerful, and definitely operatic in a compressed sort of way -- Badet's physical force is unmistakable, and the music formed an emotional narrative of defiance that you could regard as Carmen's voice recovered. But I'm not sure whether I thought it was worth sitting through the rather repetitive forty minutes before that, even though it did demonstrate the multiple layers of meaning in the voice. I think I'd rather see the movie extended with graphics or photos to provide a context for the vocal performance.


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Post-Operative Productions/ English National Opera Studio

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