Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who should sing opera?

Among the musicals TCM is showing today is the interesting concept Carmen Jones, at 3:45 PM ET. The plot is an updated version of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen, being set at a World War II-era munitions plant and army base in the Jacksonville, Florida area. As World War II was a time when the US military was still segregated by law (it wasn't until 1947 that Harry Truman desgregated it), the movie has an all-black cast. Dorothy Dandridge stars as Carmen, the seductive temptress, who woos army man Harry Belafonte into going AWOL, following Carmen all the way to Chicago, for the climactic prize fight. Oscar Hammerstein updated the lyrics for mid-century American audiences, but the music is still largely operatic in its arrangements.

This operaticism is the one glaring problem the movie has. Although all the cast members were reasonably capable singers, none of them had any opera training, which resulted in a dilemma: either dub all the songs and hope the actors can make it look as though they're realistically singing in an operatic style, or have the actors sing in a style which does not fit in with the music. It sounds as if the producers did some of both. Dorothy Dandridge was dubbed by Marilyn Horne, and Dandridge does a reasonably good job of looking like an authentic opera singer. Harry Belafonte, on the other hand, falls flat in this regard, either sounding reedy, as though he's using his own voice to sing, or looking completely ill-at-ease in the musical numbers. The supporting cast members have various degrees of success at looking operatic, with none quite reaching the level Dandridge does.

Special consideration, though, should be given to Pearl Bailey, playing one of Dandridge's friends. She doesn't sound operatic at all, but she brings so much energy to her scenes that it's easy to overlook her lack of skill at opera. It helps that she gets to sing one of her numbers, "Beat Out That Rhythm on the Drum", to an extremely energetic dance scene. Indeed, it's in the choreography that Carmen Jones really shines. If you can focus on this and Dorothy Dandridge, you can almost forget that you're watching opera.

Carmen Jones has been released to DVD.

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