AN OPERA GUIDE TO
CARMEN Le Opere
by Giorgio De Martino
WHAT KIND OF OPERA IS IT? Carmen is an opéra-comique in four parts. A tragedy full of passion, a story which is both beautiful and terrible, named after its female protagonist, Carmen the gypsy, it is an explosive mixture of sensuality and death, in a Spanish setting populated by bandits and murderers, with a finale worthy of a crime thriller. A dazzling synthesis of nineteenth century lyrical opera, it contains a number of arias which have become so famous that they have entered into the universal collective memory. These include the flower aria (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”) sung by José to the Seguidilla and Carmen’s ’Habanera, and Micaëla’s aria (“Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante”). It is an opera about seduction and physicality: and it is also suggested that Carmen the gypsy might be the personification of music itself, understood in terms of its beauty and wild abandon, its “dangerousness”, as had been so well understood by the ancient Greeks. In certain respects the plot recalls the canons of Greek tragedy with the tensions of the primordial forces of love and death, freedom and destiny which are at stake, and also with the fundamental presence of the chorus, as a collective character, the judging witness who sometimes spurs the protagonists on and supports them and at other times criticizes them or puts them on their guard. “Love is the child of the gypsies. It has never known any rules. If you do not love me, well I love you; and if I love you then you had better beware!” In Carmen’s words, the power of this opera lies in the premonition of the ruin of whoever is touched by love. Love not as a promise but as a threat, a love which is impossible to control, which has no social or moral rules and is beyond the power of prayer.
THE PLOT The action takes place in four locations and is set around 1820. It opens in Seville, then shifts to a tavern outside the Andalusian city’s walls, is then followed by a scene at the smugglers’ hideout in the mountains only to conclude in circular fashion by going back to Seville, to the Plaza de Toros in front of the bullfighting ring, where the corrida is about to begin. The opera also has four acts which correspond to the main elements which are at stake: the first presents love, the second, freedom, the third the inevitability of destiny and the fourth, death. José, a corporal in the Dragoons, is engaged to the good Micaëla, but allows himself to be ensnared by the cigarette girl, Carmen. She is arrested as a result of an affray but persuades Don José to help her escape. After having paid the price for his apparent moment of distraction with a custodial sentence, the soldier ends up by getting together with the gypsy and fleeing from justice. Thus from a defender of justice he has turned into a smuggler, and all for love of this woman. She, however, soon tires of him and is attracted by a new flame, the bullfighter Escamillo. In spite of the entreaties of Micaëla, who is desperate to win him back, Don José has eyes only for the beguiling gypsy. Driven mad by love and jealousy when he is once again faced with her disdainful rejection in the square in Seville, he stabs her only to then cry out desperately for her while the roar of the applause echoes from the adjacent bullring
in response to the gallant feats of his rival Escamillo. In summary: the naïve soldier Don José loses the “way of righteousness” (recalling Dante) as a result of his passion for Carmen. But the gypsy’s love of freedom is in conflict with the possessiveness of the seduced man who – being a soldier – does away with the force that has upset his life.
WHO WROTE THE MUSIC? Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875), a brilliant but unfortunate French composer. He was a Parisian, wedded to his art, a pupil of Charles Gounod amongst others, thanks to his recognition with the “Prix de Rome”. From 1857 to 1860 he stayed in Rome, where he was able to refine his own personal style and discovered a notable talent for opera. However, Bizet was accused by the Parisians of imitating Verdi and Wagner and only rarely succeeded in achieving popular approval and not even for his first great masterpiece, Les Pêcheurs de perles, which he composed at the age of twenty-five. He drew inspiration for his last opera from a short story by Merimée about the eponymous “dark” Andalusian heroine. Carmen premiered on 3rd March 1875, exactly three months before his death at the age of thirty-six. As a composer Bizet was extraordinarily inventive. This creativity was also expressed in terms of his use of harmonic language. He had a very French lightness of touch and elegance. A romantic soul, his models can be identified as Rossini and Beethoven as well as Mozart, from whom he inherited the extraordinary limpidity which is exemplified in Carmen.
THE BACKGROUND TO THE STORY Prosper Merimée (1803 – 1870) was a writer and archaeologist, a passionate student of the languages and cultures of the world. By publishing his own Carmen in 1845 he produced a new form of short story pitched somewhere between the fantasy of a troubled intrigue on the destiny of erotic love and the sobriety of research into the customs of the Spanish gypsies. Wishing to put Merimée’s story to music Georges Bizet decided to seek the services of two writers to produce the libretto, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who were specialised in writing plays of the lighter genre and who had previously worked with Jacques Offenbach and were undisputed masters in the writing of lyrics for operettas. These two writers overcame the many reservations held by the directors of the Opéra-Comique Theatre in Paris which stemmed from their concerns over the scabrous nature of the subject matter, by assuring them that they would make changes to soften the original material. The composer probably also had a hand in drawing up the libretto. There is no doubt that he personally attended the three months of rehearsals at the Opéra-Comique, during which he shortened and modified the score in several places. But the Spain presented by Bizet, consisting of love and death, gypsies and bullfighters, cigarette girls who smoked on stage and innovative musical solutions, scandalised the public and the critics. The composer, who was already prone to periods of depression, was psychologically devastated by this crushing failure. Three months after the premiere, on the night following the thirty-third performance of Carmen, Bizet
died, in circumstances which were never entirely understood. More than four thousand people attended his funeral, in the church of La Trinité in Montmartre in Paris. Bizet lived at a particular moment in history which coincided with the maturing of two “monstres sacrés” separated by the Alps: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. The moment of glory of the opera buffa (from which Bizet took some stylistic elements) had waned some time earlier, and it was already possible to discern the intellectual climate that would lead to the musical Verismo of Leoncavallo, Mascagni and, in part, Puccini. Carmen, the immortal incarnation of the French opera, represents something unique which both sets the tradition and at the same time opens the way to future forms of opera.
AN X-RATED OPERA? A gypsy seduces a soldier driving him to desertion. As well as dancing and singing in disreputable taverns, the woman is also involved in contraband. She soon comes to a sticky end, stabbed to death by her former lover. This was all too much for the audience of the Ville Lumière in 1875. After the furore of the opening night on 3rd March, it was the Parisian press that proposed that the opera should be forbidden to minors, in consideration of the environment in which the action of the opera took place but mostly due to the character of the “scandalous” cigarette girl.
CARMEN, OPÉRA “COMIQUE” WITH CRIME The musical “container” of Carmen fits within the genre of the Opéra-Comique, that French formula for musical theatre (which became popular from 1700 onwards) characterised by the alternation of acting and singing as found in the German Singspiel or the English Ballad Opera. In the XIXth century the Opéra-Comique became standardised to include a number of ingredients such as the risqué appeal of the plot, the artful and lively theatrical devices of the story, the simplicity of the melodies and of the rhythmic impulses. Opéra-Comique is also the name of the theatre in Paris which existed from 1780 until just a few years ago, where Carmen was premiered. It is an opera that maintains the formal structure of the genre, also respecting its typical preference for solutions for effect (such as the chorus of street children or the smugglers’ quintet), but which introduces the “revolution” of a torrid story of love and death, and many other novel features, into the genre. Bizet disrupts the vocal cliché of the operatic interaction, choosing the mezzosoprano (or contralto) vocal register for the protagonist which is a preference which is both innovative and also recalls Rossini. In Carmen, the soprano is a secondary role (that of Micaëla).
THE HEROINE IS LOVE, THE HEROINE IS DEATH In spite of appearances, Carmen is not really a femme fatale along the lines of Strauss or Wilde’s Salome. She is not a man-eater, but rather takes part – as a result of a need which is inherent to her nature– in an inescapable game of attraction and sensuality and she chooses from her various suitors. She is a woman
who lives entirely in the present moment without conserving anything, neither lovers nor material possessions. José wants from her what she cannot possibly give him: her soul and stability. For Carmen inconstancy is an “existential” law, a philosophy of life with tragic overtones which permeates her body and her desires. Carmen is pure instinct. She does not tolerate half measures and does not know how to lie. Nietzsche wrote about how this heroine personified “the true Dyonisian impulse which springs from the chaotic force of life expressed in music”. A creature of destiny, she is aware from the start that death is an inescapable – and for her, imminent – fate, as is revealed to her by her gypsy friends when they read her cards and as Bizet emphasizes with a passionate “leitmotif ”. As the incarnation of the model of a free and courageous woman, Carmen takes on the nature of an archetype, assuming a role of significant importance in the XXth century and in the battle for the equality of the sexes.
TOO MUCH INNOVATION … In every age those works of art presented through very new forms of expression are initially misunderstood. Carmen was one of those works that started out on a wrong footing. Of course it was easy for the dark tale to cause a scandal, but apart from the story, which they considered immoral, initially the Parisian audiences did not understand the music, which was even accused of being “without melody” and a “formal chaos”. This was how the composer Camille Saint-Saëns ungenerously described those French audiences: “bourgeois ruminants, brutes, with bellies (…). They half open one eye, crunch on a boiled sweet, and fall back into their torpor, convinced that the orchestra is still tuning up”.
ITS “AFRICAN POWER” Bizet’s contemporary colleagues immediately understood the novelty and importance of the score of Carmen. They included great musicians such as Wagner, Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky, who forecast immortality for the opera, placing a bet on the chances that in the space of ten years it would become the most popular opera in the world. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who heard Carmen in Genoa in 1881, spoke of “Wagner’s Mediterranean counterpart”, describing it as an “irresistible opening”, and he was struck by the “African power” that moved it.
SPAIN INVENTED IN PARIS (AND ALSO PARTLY IN CUBA) Bizet had never been to Spain. And yet his Carmen is rich in atmospheres which are musically Hispanic. A local colour which the composer reinvented not by trying to imitate Iberian exoticism but by imagining it. There are hardly any traces of melodies of clearly Spanish origin. One of these, however, is the world famous habanera: a piece which was added as a desperate measure at the last minute, shortly before the opening night in Paris, in response to the request made by the female leading lady, the mezzosoprano Célestine Galli-Marié. Bizet borrowed part of the melody of the habanera El Arreglito by
Sebastián Yradier, a Basque composer who had found it in the folk tradition of Central America during a journey to Cuba.
THE RIVALS: ESCAMILLO THE BULLFIGHTER AND GENTLE MICAËLA Alongside the two cursed lovers who form the heart of the story, the librettists Meilhac and Halévy placed the characters of two rivals, Escamillo the bullfighter (baritone), who would become Carmen’s new lover, and the peasant girl Micaëla, who represents José’s past life, the soldier’s innocent side, which is then consumed in the gypsy woman’s erotic flame. There is a clear attempt to soften the violent colours of the original short story in the description of this secondary female character: she is good, reassuring and perhaps also a bit bland, her vaguely mannered melodic purity recalling the writing of Gounod.
RECITATO OR RECITATIVO? The genesis of Bizet’s masterpiece was difficult from the outset. Both the score and the dialogue of Carmen was tampered with and shortened while the composer was still alive, and already during the first year there were substitutions of recited text with recitatives which were composed specially for the opening in Vienna, by Ernest Guiraud, his friend and collaborator. The original formula was considered unsuitable for a public which was not French. And it was only in France, after its triumphant return in 1883, that Carmen continued to be presented in the original version with acted dialogue which would come back into fashion in the world in the mid twentieth century.
IS IT REALLY VERISMO ANTE LITTERAM? Perhaps also due to the posthumous version of the score (with dialogue set to music), Carmen was considered a model of musical verismo. The unbridled corporality that suffuses the opera may come close to certain characteristics that would later be typical of verismo. But in Bizet we find a psychological depth of great refinement which is certainly difficult to discern in his contemporaries.
MUSICAL SUMMARY: THE OVERTURE The instrumental opening of Bizet’s opera presents some of the most well known melodies of the score all together taking on that Iberian exoticism that lends a fascinating and unreal “Hispanic musical quality” which was developed by the French. It begins with the circensian tumult of a fanfare (which we will find again in the fourth act), which establishes the atmosphere of the corrida. There follows the march of the bullfighters and finally – after a deceptive pause which appears to signal the end of the overture – there is the theme of destiny, of fate, which will be woven in sections throughout the whole score: a fortissimo with the rejoinder of the strings, in a minor key, a sorrowful theme to the rhythm of the timpani which ends with a violent chord like an explosion like that knife plunged into the heart of the beautiful gypsy.
DANCE AND CINEMA The story of the cigarette girl has inspired many films from the time of the silent movies on. Examples include a Carmen by Cecil B. De Mille (1915), one by Ernst Lubitsch (1918), and even a Burlesque on Carmen directed and performed by Charlie Chaplin. There have been many contemporary versions of the story (for example the operatic thriller Prénom Carmen in 1983 directed by Jean-Luc Godard) in the form of a film and a musical. In 1984 film director Francesco Rosi (with screenwriter Tonino Guerra) made a film-opera, which was shot in Andalusia. There have also been many ballets choreographed to the music of the opera such as the one by Roland Petit for Michail Baryshnikov and Zizi Jeanmaire. Finally, we should remember Carmen Story, the film by Carlos Saura made in collaboration with the choreographer and dancer Antonio Gades, which was a combination of film and dance.
THE LAST WORD FROM PROSPER MÉRIMÉE “She wore a very short red skirt which allowed a glimpse of white silk stockings with many holes and some delicate little shoes of red morroco tied with flame coloured ribbons. She let her mantilla slip down to display her shoulders and a large bunch of robinia in her décolletage. She also had a flower in the corner of her mouth and advanced swinging her hips like a Cordova filly. In my country a girl dressed like her would have caused everyone who passed by to make the sign of the cross. In Seville everyone paid her a lewd compliment admiring her shapely form. She would always answer back, her eyes languid, hand on her hip, shameless like the gypsy she was”. This is Carmen in the first description made of her by her inventor, the writer Prosper Mérimée.
concludes his story as follows, making Don José speak in the first person: “I was overcome with rage. I drew my knife. I wanted her to be afraid and to beg for mercy but that woman was a devil. I cried out for the last time “Do you want to stay with me?” – “No, no, no!” She said stamping her feet, and she took a ring I had given her off her finger and threw it into the bushes. I stabbed her twice. I had taken the knife from Guercio because mine had broken. She fell at the second blow without a cry. I can still see her big dark eyes fixed upon me. Her eyes faded and closed without her uttering a sound. I remained there for a whole hour annihilated before that corpse. Then I remembered that Carmen had often said that she would have liked to be buried in a wood. I dug a pit for her with the knife and put her inside it. I spent a long time looking for her ring and finally found it. I placed it in the pit next to her with a small cross. Perhaps I was wrong. After that I got on my horse and galloped as far as Cordova and gave myself up to the first officer I found. I told him I had killed Carmen but I did not want to say where her body was”.