Program booklet »Carmen«

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CARMEN OPÉRA COMIQUE in four acts Libretto HENRI MEILHAC & LUDOVIC HALÉVY after the eponymous novella by PROSPER MÉRIMÉE



2 flutes (both doubling piccolo) 2 oboes (2nd doubling cor anglais) 2 clarinets / 2 bassoons 4 horns / 2 cornets 3 trombones / timpani percussion / harp violin I / violin II viola / cello / double bass 2 cornets / 3 trombones

AUTOGRAPH Manuscript Département de la Musique Bibliothèque Nationale de France WORLD PREMIÈRE 3 MARCH 1875 Opéra-Comique Paris PREMIÈRE AT THE HOUSE ON THE RING 23 OCT 1875 Vienna Court Opera DURATION




SYNOPSIS ACT 1 Under the command of their corporal Moralès, soldiers are on guard duty outside a cigarette factory in the South of Spain. Micaëla, a young woman from the Basque region, is looking for a man she grew up with, Don José. He is not on duty. When the soldiers start to scare her by making strong advances, she runs away. After the changing of the guard, as José goes on duty, the cigarette factory employees take a long break. The female workers enter the square – watched enthusiastically by the men. The woman most eagerly awaited is Carmen. She arrives and sings a song about the unpredictability and uncontrollability of love. At the end, she throws a flower to José. Micaëla gives José a letter and tells him, that his mother has also instructed her to give José a kiss for her. José is moved and confused about this surprising recollection of his past life. The female workers alarm the guarding soldiers: during a fight Carmen has injured one of her co-workers. During questioning by the lieutenant Zuniga, Carmen answers provocatively. José is ordered to guard and keep a watch on Carmen. By flirting and the promise of possibly meeting her later at Lillas Pastia’s bar, Carmen makes José neglect his duties. Carmen is able to escape.




ACT 2 On the outskirts of the city, Lillas Pastia hosts an improvised bar in which Zuniga and Moralès are guests entertained by Frasquita and Mercédès. Carmen sings a stimulating song. Accompanied by celebrating soldiers, the bullfighter Escamillo then arrives. After being cheered and acclaimed, he moves on with his entourage. The smugglers Dancaïre and Remendado suggest to the women a potential criminal maneuver in which their feminine charms are particularly required. Frasquita and Mercédès accept and join them, but Carmen declines. She is in love with José and chooses to wait for him. José was sentenced to two months in prison because of Carmen’s escape, but today he can finally see her again. Unfortunately, after a short time, the last post trumpet call is heard and Carmen is infuriated that José wants to follow the call and return obediently to the barracks. The argument escalates. At the moment José finally decides to leave, lieutenant Zuniga returns to the bar, who has likewise thrown a glance at Carmen. José defends her aggressively. As José and Zuniga fight each other, the smugglers return and dispatch the lieutenant. Since José has now ignored the last trumpet call and attacked his superior officer, there is no way back and he has no choice but to lead a life as a member of the smugglers’ gang.



ACT 3 In the frontier zone, the smugglers meet and wait for an opportunity to bring their goods over the border. Carmen and José are arguing with each other, and not for the first time: she will not let herself be controlled, and in such moments, he sees “the devil” in her. Mercédès is convinced she will find a great love, while Frasquita predicts for herself a rich husband who will soon pass away. Carmen sees death in the cards: first her own and then José’s. The smugglers get to work. Micaëla has managed to catch up to the smugglers but narrowly misses their departure. She hides, waits, and hopes to find José. José, who has stayed behind on guard duty, meets Escamillo, who would like to see Carmen again. José attacks him with a knife. The returning smugglers separate the fighters. Escamillo takes leave of them confident of his victory and invites them all to his next bullfight. The smugglers discover Micaëla. She begs José to return to his mother. José hesitates because he is fearful that in his absence Carmen could turn her attention to Escamillo. Micaëla finally explains that José’s mother is dying and can thereby at last convince him. Escamillo’s song is heard in the distance.

ACT 4 The arena’s entrance is full of excitement. The fans are cheering for the entering participants of the bullfight, especially the wildly acclaimed matador Escamillo. Before the bullfight begins, he and Carmen pledge their love to each other. Frasquita and Mercédès warn Carmen about José, who they have seen in the crowd, but Carmen refuses to evade the confrontation and stays behind alone. José begs Carmen to renew their relationship and threatens her, but she no longer loves him and is not willing to play the hypocrite. While the fans in the arena celebrate the successful Escamillo, José stabs Carmen.



Nevertheless, it may sometimes seem to us in the opera too that the character of Escamillo and the entire noisy final scene are not the essential part of the story and that in the end Carmen desires her new lover much less than she desires her freedom. Thanks to the power of the underlying poetry, in that case all the middle-class emotions in the opera would be obliterated, and what emerged would be the archetype of the beautiful seductress in the even more pitiless and lucid traits of the novella.


HEARING ANEW WHAT ONE HAS HEARD MANY TIMES CARMEN DETAILS I. When Gustav Mahler was experimenting with themes and sounds from the Far East, was he writing non-European or even Far Eastern music? Or were there simply influences that he assimilated but then continued to compose entirely in the style of Mahler? With good reason, I believe the latter is true. The case with Bizet and Carmen is no different. In terms of the music, it is not a Spanish piece, but a typical French opéra comique, very much in the tradition of Charles Gounod. Bizet scarcely knew Spain; he had an image of the country in his mind’s eye, but that was nothing more than a French composer’s subjective view of a country he did not know. By the same token, the literary source material, a novella by Prosper Mérimée, is French, although the author had often travelled to the region he was describing and knew it well. So it seems important to me, as conductor, to keep the French background constantly in mind and not try at all costs to make the music of Carmen sound “Spanish”. If someone in the

audience thinks it sounds Spanish and for example hears a hot day in Andalusia, all the better. But it was not my goal to practise musical geography. For Bizet, this question of how authentically Spanish his Carmen was simply did not arise. What interested him was the energy, the verve, the drama – and of course in keeping with the trends of the day, the exotic allure of the story. He therefore included Spanish phrases, rhythms and themes with contrived melodies “in the Spanish style.” As a result, some of the music is patterned after Spanish music, some is original, but both are used to create a certain atmosphere. In Escamillo’s first aria, for example, there are figures in the accompaniment heard in the section “Votre toast” that are in the rhythmic style of a Paso Doble, in other words the traditional Spanish dance that thematises bull-fighting. In this case Bizet was drawing on a genuine Spanish dance and thereby defining the figure precisely both in terms of the music and the subject matter.



II. One of the challenges with Carmen is not to be so distracted by the wonderful melodies and the beauty of the score that one neglects to take a more in-depth look at the music. It is precisely in the details that we can see Bizet’s brilliant craftsmanship. For example, when Micaëla meets Moralès at the beginning of the opera, in the course of their short dialogue she assumes one of his musically succinct phrases. There can be no doubt that for Bizet this was more than the simple repetition of a pretty melody. Rather, he wanted to say something about the relationship between the two of them. Another example of this challenge is the top of the “Toreador” theme in the overture. Bizet marked the first entrance piano or even pianissimo, only gradually growing to fortissimo in the repetition. However, because the melody is so distinctive, thrilling and spirited and furthermore played in unison in the strings, in practice you seldom hear this section played piano. It is really a pity, because Bizet created a spatial effect here: First the music is heard from far off, then it comes closer, creating a delightful contrast in the repeat. A third example: Carmen’s two companions, Mercédès and Frasquita have much in common, but by nature they are very different, which is made clear in the music. One of them is a dreamer, believes in fairy-tale princes, has her head in the clouds, while the other has both feet firmly planted on the ground. I am really delighted that in this production by Calixto Bieito these characters are particularly clearly drawn. As a result they are a perfect match in the drama and music, and each

complements the other with their message. This also applies to the smugglers’ quintet: in this production Dancaïre is evidently high on drugs and therefore overwrought, which is reflected in the fast-paced tempo of the quintet – incidentally the most difficult part of the entire opera for all of them. It is not surprising that Bizet is considered a magician of acoustic colour and a genius in the art of instrumentation. He controls every nuance of the colours in the orchestra and uses them to create very specific moods. We see this in the way he has the timpani and trombones start playing the moment that Carmen enters during the card trio where the cards foretell fate and death, the way he incorporates the characteristically elegiac sound of the cor anglais in the flower aria, how trumpets add a military reference, the castanets indicate dance and the erotic, or the harp the dreamlike: all this shows the elaborate sound dramaturgy that Bizet was capable of. Micaëla’s aria in Act 3 is an exception. From the outset I had the impression with this piece of music that it did not fit organically with the rest; I always felt there was something foreign about the aria, not just because of the unusual instrumental accompaniment but also in terms of its nature and the musical lead-in to it. The solution to the puzzle: The aria in fact comes from an earlier opera fragment written by Bizet and was inserted in the Carmen score, complete with new text. Nevertheless: a masterpiece. And in this case this unrelated insert is exactly what is needed; after all, Micaëla is a stranger in the world of smugglers and crooks.



III. For me what is exciting is the question of how we today can recreate the original, the revolutionary aspects that generated excitement at the world première. Almost no other opera is as popular as Carmen and as well recognised, even after hearing it just once. With music that has been heard so often, how do you convey the incredible excitement of the world première? For example by looking at the work’s origins, stressing a dissonance here, adjusting a tempo there, and questioning conventions. Not to irritate anyone, but to give the work its truthfulness. By distancing ourselves a little from the familiar (but not always correct) conventions we come across the ferocity, the anger, the revolutionary power inherent in the music. And there is the key word: convention. As with all works, but especially those that are so well known, it holds opportunities but also dangers. In order to realise the opportunities and avoid the dangers, you have to differentiate between meaningful tradition and “we’ve always done it this way.” So at the very first music rehearsals I went through the opera with the opera house’s pianists in order to learn how Carmen has been performed here, at the Staatsoper, in the past. And I asked a lot of questions. Why do we put in a “traditional fermata” there? And why is there a rubato here? Is there a reason or has it just become ingrained? I made a note of these places and said to myself “We’ll see.” And I decided to look at these instances as

opportunities, as suggestions that I need to check for their validity and meaningfulness. Just because we have performed it this way for so long doesn’t mean it has to be wrong – but it is also not necessarily right. Just as one does in a card game, I mentally laid them out next to each other: on the left is what the music says, on the right is what convention tells me, and the two meet somewhere in the middle. In an ideal situation the freshness of the music and the experience of years of practice can be combined to produce something exciting. But sometimes I prefer one over the other. Often I combine the two. But I always look for a reason that goes beyond a simple acceptance or rejection of tradition. Naturally this mental card game – as I described it – does not take place in a vacuum, but always in the context of an actual production. The music should of course reflect and explain what a director is offering: On the one hand in terms of technical aspects (I must always consider the stage area, the position and distance of the singers and the chorus from each other and from the orchestra); on the other hand, dramatically. Opera only makes sense as a combination of tableau, drama, history, and music. And so I come back again to the new aspects I mentioned above. I can find these in authentic, truthful rendition, I find them in harmony with the direction, but perhaps also extract a spark of excitement from the act of resisting bad traditions.




AT THE BORDER A TRASHY NOVEL BECOMES AN OPERA ABOUT CALIXTO BIEITO’S PRODUCTION The source text for the opera Carmen, Prosper Mérimée’s eponymous novella, transports us to the periphery of Spanish society. Soldiers with a criminal history, smugglers, prostitutes, factory workers and Spanish Romanies are the characters in the plot. The story is told as a double flashback. On his journey through Andalusia the narrator meets a wanted criminal and multiple murderer: Don José. José recounts his life story. During a quarrel in his home village in Basque country he killed his adversary with an iron bar, whereupon he had to leave his home and landed in the military in Andalusia. He made the acquaintance of the Romani Carmen, after which he took up with a band of criminals. He stabs to death a lieutenant whom he believes to be a rival for Carmen’s affection, and he becomes a member of their band of smugglers and robbers. The band is ruthless in the way they treat not just their victims, but also each other. When José tries to carry a fellow smuggler who has been shot as they escape, another band member shoots the wounded man in the face so that he won’t be a burden to the group and

cannot be identified. José challenges Garcia, Carmen’s official lover, to a duel and kills him, whereupon the leader says to him: “If you had simply asked him for Carmen, he would have sold her off to you for one piastre!” Carmen too treats everyone inconsiderately. As head of the gang, she arranges smuggling deals and hold-ups. She does this completely independently, travelling on her own between Seville, Gibraltar and Cordoba, meeting up only occasionally with the men in her band to discuss new plans and to see José, whose behaviour becomes increasingly jealous and aggressive. For her part, she sleeps with wealthy men and gets paid for doing so, and takes advantage above all of the emotional dependence of these men to lure them into her trap. To help ensure the success of her smuggling activities, she also keeps the guards sweet with erotic promises. José murders Carmen because she refuses to commit to him once her feelings for him have cooled. He carries out a planned, well-prepared execution in a desolate ravine, and the bandit ends his narrative with the words: “The calle [Roma] are to blame for bringing her up as they did.” The Carmen novella is a cleverly written trashy novel enhanced with



expert knowledge and tailored by the author to his French readers. For the opera based on the novella, librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy toned down the trashy elements. Until he kills Carmen, which in the opera is more an act in the heat of passion than planned, José does not commit any serious crimes. Robbery and con games are non-issues, prostitution is merely suggested – the criminal activities of the band of smugglers are limited to the transportation of goods at night. Carmen is no longer the au­ tonomous head of the band, but part of the community; she has two friends by her side, and her singing always resonates with the group, who join in her refrain. Despite these compromises, the violent atmosphere of the novella is retained in the opera; the mixed reaction to the world première gives an indication of how radical the choice of subject was. A highly unusual element in 1875 was the number of knives, daggers, weapons, and pistols drawn and used. José is not a serial murderer, as he is in the novella, but he starts several fights with weapons and has to be separated from his adversaries before something tragic happens. Even though the opera libretto gives him an (absent) mother and a potentially ideal wife, he remains a possessive and aggressive man who makes even the other smugglers uneasy. Like the novella, the opera plays out amongst the uprooted and homeless. As was the case with most of his soldier companions, José had to leave his home; besides, the Roma are the epitome of the homeless. Escamillo travels from bullfight to bullfight, and Micaëla too finds herself alone and

unprotected in a strange land. The underprivileged and outcast are the main characters: workers in a tobacco factors, soldiers, Roma and criminals – only Escamillo, the character added for the opera, has managed to improve his standing in society.

THE SPANISH BORDER AREA Andalusia of the 19th century was as legendary as it was dangerous. The people were poor, the crime rate was high, and with its ravines and cliffs the countryside was almost impossible to police. The proximity of Gibraltar not only ensured lively trade but also attracted smugglers and bandoleros (bandits). For this reason, there was a significant need for soldiers, who were recruited from criminal and outcast populations in other parts of the country. In preparation for their production of Carmen (which was first seen at the Festival Peralada in 1999) Calixto Bieito and his team travelled through the south of Spain. They found the border region of Europe they were looking for not in Andalusia, but on the coast of Africa, in the Spanish exclave of Ceuta, which is bordered by Morocco. Today the exposed location of the town is even more prominent than it was in 1999. People in flight constantly try to get across the border fence, which has been heightened several times, to reach the European Union. At the same time, smuggling of everyday merchandise was long tacitly tolerated, but recently Morocco has been taking more drastic action. The Carmen world of this production was inspired by pictures of and



around Ceuta. Through this process, some elements of the novella found their way back into the opera. Like Mérimée’s Andalusia, it is a dangerous world characterised by violence, and we see how a girl, perhaps the daughter of Mercédès, becomes enmeshed in this world. We should not be deceived by the realistic look of the costumes and sets. This Carmen takes place in a poetic no man’s land. National symbols are artistically quoted and questioned through installations. Despite all the documentary inspiration, we are in an artificially concentrated space, the horizon of which seems always to be obstructed by

a barrier. Borders, says Calixto Bieito, always mean danger for those who try to cross them. And nearly all the characters are trying to overcome the borders that poverty, violence, and frustration impose on them. They live, love and celebrate, and in the dramatically staged interludes we feel their beauty and the longing they have not been able to rid themselves of. Carmen stands out for her self-confidence, her passion, and her perspicuity, but in Bieito’s production she is still a flesh-and-blood human. She laughs at our stereotype of a “gypsy” in a flamenco dress certainly no less than at José’s pronouncement that she is the devil.



LEAVING THE MILITARY That night I was assigned to guard the breach in the wall. No sooner had the lance corporal left than I saw a woman walking towards me. My heart told me that it was Carmen, but nevertheless I called out: “Halt! Go back! You can’t come through here.” “Don’t be so mean!” she replied and revealed her identity. “Carmen, what are you doing here!” “Yes indeed, my dear soldier! Allow me a few, brief words. Do you want to earn a little cash? People will be coming this way carrying pack baskets. Let them pass!” “No!” I responded. “I have to stop them. Those are my orders.” “Orders, orders! You weren’t thinking about orders that day in Calle del Candilejo Street.” “Well!” I replied, taken off guard at the mere memory. “It was worth forgetting my orders for that! But I won’t take money from smugglers.” “Listen! If you don’t want money, shall we go and have dinner again at old Dorotea’s?” “No”, I said, half choking with the effort it cost me to say it. “I can’t.” “Very well then. Since you are being so difficult, I know who I can turn to. I’ll invite your lieutenant to go with me to Dorotea’s. You can tell he’s a good man and will post a sentry who will only see what he is supposed to see. Goodbye, canary bird. The day the orders are to hang you, I’ll laugh my head off.” I was weak enough to call her back and promised to let the whole band of gypsies pass if that would get me the only reward that I desired. She immediately swore to me that she would keep her promise the very next day. Then she hurried over to her friends who were waiting nearby. There were five of them, including Pastia, all of them heavily weighed down with English goods. Carmen kept watch. She was to warn them with her castanets the moment she saw the patrol approaching. But there was no need for that as the smugglers finished their work in a moment. The next day I went to the Calle del Candilejo. Carmen kept me waiting and was in a bad mood when she finally arrived.



“I don’t like people who have to be coerced”, she said. “You did me a greater service the first time, without knowing you would get anything out of it. Yesterday you bargained with me. I don’t really know why I came – I don‘t like you much anymore. Here’s a douro for your trouble. Now leave!” I was sorely tempted to throw the coin at her, and it was all I could do to stop myself from beating her up. After we fought for an hour, I left in a rage. I wandered about the town for some time, going this way and that like a madman. Finally, I entered a church, sat down in the darkest corner and shed hot tears. “A soldier in tears! I’ll use them to make a love potion.” I looked up. Standing before me was Carmen. “Say, soldier, are you still sore at me?” she asked. “I must care for you after all, because since you left me I haven’t been myself. Well look, now I’m the one asking you: Will you come to Calle del Candilejo with me?” So we made up. But Carmen was like the weather around here. The storm in our mountains is never so close as when the sun is shining the most brightly. She promised to come to Dorotea’s with me another time, but she didn’t come. And the old woman tried to convince me that she had left for Laloro (Portugal). Since I knew from experience how much I could believe, I looked for Carmen everywhere where I thought she might be, and I went to Calle del Candilejo twenty times a day. One evening when I was with Dorotea, whom I had won over because I bought her a glass of anisette every so often, Carmen walked in, and with her a young man, a lieute­ nant from my regiment. “Beat it! Right now!” she said to me in Basque. I stood there, bewildered, absolutely furious. “What are you doing here?” the officer asked me. “Get out of here!” I couldn’t move a step, I was as if paralysed. The lieutenant, fuming with rage when he saw that I was not leaving and had not even taken off my kepi, grabbed me by the collar and shook me roughly. I no longer know what I shouted at him. He drew his knife, and I drew mine. The old woman grasped my arm, and the lieutenant took a swipe at my forehead; you can still see the scar. I took a step back and jabbed Dorotea with my elbow so that she fell over backwards. Then, when the lieutenant came at me again, I thrust my sword at him. He ran straight into it.


GARCIA’S DEATH Every time she said to me: “Go!” I could not. I promised her I would leave, I would rejoin my companions and await the arrival of the Englishman. For her part, she promised me she would feign illness until she left Gibral­ tar. I stayed there for two more days, and she was so bold as to visit me in my shelter. I set out. I had de­ vised a plan of my own. I went back to our rendezvous with the information about the place and the time at which the Englishman and Carmen were to pass by. I found El Dancaïre and Garcia waiting for me. We spent the night outdoors beside a fire of pine-cones that blazed wonderfully. I suggested a game of cards to Garcia. In the second game I accused him of cheating. He laughed, so I threw the cards in his face. He tried to reach for his musket, but I put my foot on it, and said, “They say you have no equal in the use of a knife. Shall we see how do you against me?” El Dancaïre tried to get between us, but I had punched Garcia two or three times. His fury emboldened him: he drew his knife, and I drew mine. We both told El Dancaïre to leave us and let us slug it out. When he realised he could not stop us, he stepped to one side. Garcia was crouched down, like a cat, ready to pounce on a mouse. In his left hand he held his hat to parry with, he held his knife out front. That is the “en garde” position that Andalusians assume. For my part, I positioned myself in Navarre style: Facing him with my left arm raised, left leg forward, holding my knife at my right thigh. I felt as strong as a giant.





He flew at me like an arrow. I turned on my left foot, such that he was thrusting into space. I struck him in the throat, and my knife went in so deep that my hand was under his chin. Then I twisted the blade with such force that it broke. That was the end of Garcia! A gush of blood as thick as my arm poured from the wound, carrying the knife with it. He fell forward on his face, stiff as a log. “What have you done?” shouted Dancaïre. “I will tell you,” I answered him. “We could not both live. I love Carmen, and I intend to be the only one. Anyway, Garcia was a blackguard. I have never forgotten what he did to poor Remendado. Now there are only two of us, but we are both good fellows. Shall we be friends, for life or death?” Dancaïre grasped my hand. He was a man of fifty. “The devil take these love affairs!” he cried. “If you had simply asked him for Carmen, he would have sold her to you for one piastre! Now there are just two of us. How shall we manage tomorrow?” “I’ll handle it on my own,” I answered him. “I thumb my nose at the whole world.” We buried Garcia and moved our camp two hundred paces further on. The next day Carmen rode by with her Englishman, two muleteers and a servant. I said to Dancaïre: “I’ll take care of the Englishman. You give the three others a fright; they have no weapons.” The Englishman was a brave man and would have finished me off, if Carmen had not bumped his arm... In short, I won Carmen back that day, and my first words to her were: “You are a widow!”



Finally love, love translated back into Nature! Not the love of a “cultured maiden”! No Senta sentimentality! But love as fate, as a fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel – and precisely because of that, Nature! Love whose resources mean war, whose essence is mortal hatred between the sexes! I know of no case in which the tragic joke, which is the essence of love, is expressed as harshly, or in as terrible a formula, as in the last cry of Don José with which the work ends: “Yes! It was I who killed her, I – my adored Carmen.” This concept of love (the only one worthy of a philosopher) is rare: it elevates a work of art above thousands of others.

In general, artists are like the rest of the world, or even worse: they misunderstand love. Wagner too misunderstood it. They imagine that they are selfless in it because they appear to be seeking the advantage of another creature often to their own disadvantage. But in return they want to possess the other creature... Even God is no exception here. He is far from thinking “What does it matter to you whether I love you or not?” He becomes terrible if he is not loved in return. L’amour – with this saying you will be proved right amongst gods and people alike – est de tous les sentiments le plus égoïste, et par conséquent, lorsqu’il est blessé, le moins généreux. (B. Constant)


A FAIRLY CONSISTENT SUCCESS CARMEN IN VIENNA SINCE 1875 BEFORE IT REALLY TOOK OFF Carmen would not have needed Vienna to establish itself permanently around the globe as one of the best known and most performed musical theatre works. Nevertheless, the first performance at the opera house on the Ring frequently mentioned in the opera’s reception history did help propel it rapidly to international fame and popularity in a way that could not have been more effective. And it permanently influenced performance practice. The fact that this happened at all is due to perhaps the most innovative director of the Court Opera before Gustav Mahler: Franz Jauner. This active theatre director was responsible for four major theatres in Vienna – sometimes at the same time – and was considered to be eager to try new ideas, imaginative and enterprising, an expert on trends in the arts all over Europe, and also extremely flexible and quick to respond to the latest developments. In light of the alarming power aspirations of the newly formed

German Reich, France, and Paris in particular were strongly favoured by all the intellectuals and artists in the Danube monarchy. Jauner rarely missed a première in the Seine metropolis, and indeed even sent several of his actors from Vienna to performances in Paris to gain inspiration from highly regarded performances there. After signing the Court Opera contracts, he no longer had time to travel himself and so sent the theatre agent Gustav Lewy, whom he trusted, in search of ideas. And it was Lewy who recommended the new opera Carmen, amongst others, after attending a performance at the Opéra Comique; Jauner immediately set about acquiring the work for the Court Opera. To be sure, thanks not least to this Francophile sentiment, the Carmen project in Vienna was the focus of general interest for quite some time. In autumn 1872, when the decision to set Carmen to music had just been made and Bizet had not even started composing, the following notice appeared for example in the Austrian Fremdenblatt newspaper on 12 November: “Meilhac



and Halévy will soon be presenting two new operettas. 1. La Boule, which is intended for the Palais Royal, 2. A three-act operetta (4 scenes) which the two authors have based on the novella Carmen by Mérimée. This second piece, for which Georges Bizet is writing the music, will be performed this winter at the Opéra Comique.” And several major Austrian newspapers devoted a considerable amount of space to the Paris world première itself (which did not take place as announced in winter, but in fact more than two years later). In March, the same month as the performance, Paul d’Abrest wrote a lengthy review of both the work and a performance, expressing somewhat cool euphoria about the quality of the music. “This is not to say that the music by M. Bizet is dispensable; although the melodies in this Singspiel are not especially ravishing and we cannot foresee a long career for Carmen, the work does contain enough numbers to secure its future as a ‘succès honorable.’” Even Eduard Hanslick paid a visit to the Opéra Comique and reported in the Neue Freie Presse on a “fairly consistent success” that he deemed worthy of being presented again on German stages – perhaps not “as a masterpiece” but “as one of those successful operas that, given the current scarcity of new works, one can quite safely put on, indeed one almost must put on if one wants to present a new work now and then.” At the same time, he made a few casting suggestions for a possible première at the Vienna Court Opera (of which one – Bertha Ehnn as Carmen – was in fact realised). Director Franz Jauner adeptly and swiftly secured the rights for the Court

Opera, and within a very short span of time the Austrian board of censors gave the go-ahead for the world’s first production of Carmen at theatres other than the Opéra Comique. “I am pleased to return the opera presented to me for appraisal with the note that we have no objection to performance of the same at the imperial and royal Court Opera Theatre.”

MORE OR LESS ORIGINAL Just how great anticipation was before the Viennese première, how much the opera world was in galvanized can be seen from a lengthy report in the tabloid newspaper Salonblatt, whose reviewer had received special permission to attend one of the dress rehearsals not open to the public. This meant that the paper could extol the work (very welcome to the Court Opera) even before the première, praising the opera and the production to the skies, not forgetting to mention that Archduke Wilhelm had taken his seat in the imperial Incognito Box. In other words: marketing as it was done in 1875. However, there was some question of the extent to which this first Viennese Carmen directed by Hans Richter aligned with Bizet’s original musical intentions, and many a discussion subsequently took up this topic. Firstly, as was the norm in those days, the audience of course did not hear the French original, but a rather free German translation by conductor Julius Hopp, who was also a composer. Secondly, several passages were cut or revised, the reason being not least so that a ballet could be inserted in Act 4. This extra material was nevertheless written



by Bizet and included the “Farandole” and “Pastorale” from L’Arlésienne and the “Danse bohémienne” from La jolie fille de Perth. Thirdly, at the latest starting in 1880 the sung recitatives written by Ernest Guiraud replaced the spoken dialogue and were later used all over the world. Contrary to popular belief, in the early years audiences in Vienna did not hear (exclusively) these recitatives, but also the abbreviated prose text (translated by Hopp), as Laura Möckli very impressively demonstrated. She reminds us amongst other things of Julius Korngold’s discussion in the Neue Freie Presse on 16 May 1928 of a Carmen guest performance by the Opéra Comique at the Staatsoper; he pointed out that Gustav Mahler was the first to remove the recitative/dialogue mix when he first directed Carmen in Vienna on 26 May 1900 and completely eliminated the spoken passages. Incidentally Korngold gave preference to the original version performed by the French guests for the first time in Vienna over Guiraud’s version. “This opera was performed as Bizet wrote it, as an opéra comique: With spoken dialogue, which not only allows for better motivation, but enriches the piece with charming lively conversation. The action and characters are thus portrayed more distinctly and clearly.” Even though the first performance in Vienna on 23 October 1875 was ultimately “only a partial success” according to the review in the Abendpost newspaper, some applause “prompted opposition”, and audience discussion at the interval was partially very negative, the opera and production not only held their ground in the repertoire but even quickly became a box office hit.

Indeed, this was so much the case that for the next 60 years it was not considered necessary to create a new production. It was not by chance that when a new production came out in 1932 (with a rather weak Maria Jeritza in the title role) Josef Reitler posed the question in the Wiener Zeitung whether “we should perhaps not console ourselves with the fact that the most popular operas are not by their very nature the most frequently performed.” Expressed in numbers, this means: the first Viennese Carmen with sets by Carlo Brioschi and costumes by Franz Gaul saw well over 500 performances!

FOUR NEW PRODUCTIONS IN JUST TEN YEARS While the production changed little between 1875 and 1937, in the years between 1937 and 1948 enormous changes were made. Within just under eleven years, the theatre mounted no less than four new productions, albeit with very varying degrees of success. The first of these, which premièred on 22 December 1937 as it were on the eve of the so-called ‘Anschluss’, met with the greatest approval. (Both the director Carl Ebert and the conductor Bruno Walter as well as the choreographer Margarete Wallmann – all three lauded by critics and public alike for their achievements in this pre-Christmas première – had to flee the National Socialists just a few months later.) With the help of the revolving stage, with special lighting, colour and shadow effects and sophisticated, very detailed and psychologically motivated stage directions this production was so impressive that it was effectively regarded as a reference work for many



years against which all the subsequent productions were measured. The next new production, realised towards the end of the Second World War was led by Karl Böhm with stage directions by Oscar Fritz Schuh (18 April 1944). Although it also reaped favourable feedback from the media toeing the line, anyone who could read even a little between the lines found disappointment, criticism and mention of outmoded theatre practice. In the Wiener Tagblatt for example, incorporated in the Nazi propaganda machine since 1938, this came out as follows: “Outwardly one may have the impression that the actors were resorting to retrogressive ‘opera gestures’ but naturally a maestro like Schuh manages to avoid fossilizing the gestures into typology; one might even say convention was served entirely unconventionally.” The production had run its course after just five performances. As soon as 1946 the next Carmen took place at the Volksoper, the second temporary quarters for the Staatsoper destroyed in the war. The connecting link between the failed Schuh production and the next attempt, also received without much enthusiasm, was Erika Hanka. Whereas in 1944 she was responsible solely for choreography, two years later she took on the assignment of stage director. The result, according to the Neues Österreich newspaper, was scenically “proper and correct. But where are the outpourings of hot temperament, the sparking sensualism? Spain seemed nordicized and robbed of its burning passion. Erika Hanka’s production was not able to rise above rather bland convention. One original feature is the two-­storey sets in Acts 2 and 4 (Walter von Hoesslin).”

The cast of singers all received praise: Lorna Sydney (Carmen), Sena Jurinac (Micaëla), Karl Fridrich (Don José) and Paul Schöffler (Escamillo). Although the two theatres where Staatsoper productions were mounted between 1945 and 1955 were artistically equal, the Volksoper was regarded primarily as a theatre for operetta and German light opera, and the more beautiful former Schikaneder theatre was considered the real temporary quarters of the Staatsoper while it underwent reconstruction. In keeping with this idea, two years later, namely on 21 October 1948, Carmen moved to the Theater an der Wien. However, the fact that a completely new production had to be created for this move was not welcomed due to the prevailing financial situation, especially since many important other works in the repertoire were not on the schedule. If only the scenic quality could have improved – but this was not the case. Some people felt the clocks had been turned back four years. The director was once again Oscar Fritz Schuh, the choreographer Erika Hanka. Only the new set and costume designer Caspar Neher seemed to improve artistic standards. It was no wonder then that the reviews included terms like “stiffness and staffage” or reminisced wistfully about the Ebert production of 1937. Many were also not happy with Elisabeth Höngen’s Carmen (“not exactly her role”), Irmgard Seefried’s Micaëla (“too much flirtatious soubrette behaviour”), Helge Roswaenge’s Don José (“vocally inhibited in Act 1”), and Ferdinand Frantz’s Escamillo (“stuck in conventional opera gestures.”) Only Josef Krips’ directing was above criticism.



AFTER 1955 Bizet’s long runner did not seem to be the right work for the re-opening celebrations of the new opera house on the Ring, but not quite a year later the Staatsoper offered its audiences a Carmen with an almost entirely new leading team (except the choreographer was Erika Hanka). And this on two occasions, as the direction by former Burgtheater director Josef Gielen and his set and costume designer Georges Wakhévitch saw a double première directed by Heinrich Hollreiser essentially with different casts. (Première I on 19 November 1956: Jean Madeira, Rudolf Schock, Přemysl Kočí; première II on 22 November 1956: Christa Ludwig, Hans Hopf, Walter Berry). Gielen, who soon after this was appointed senior director of the Staats­ oper, staged many key works from opera literature, generally more illustrative than interpretative, and with the exception of “his” Butterfly none of his works stayed very long in the reper­ toire. Nonetheless, this Carmen was able to boast the historic fact of being the first in which (after some time) the German gave way to the French original. Otto Schenk’s direction on sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssens offered a far more profound, compelling examination starting in 1966. Simply the fact that this was the first time in the history of the theatre that it had put on its own production and in which the inserted, out-of-place ballet was eliminated made the production tantamount to a small revolution. And Schenk’s eminent special talent for involving the chorus in the drama was shown to great advantage. The fact that the sets in Act 2 and above all Act 4

were reminiscent of previously seen “Wagner landscapes” did not seem to bother anyone. (At the première the singers performing under Lorin Maazel included Christa Ludwig, James King and Eberhard Waechter.) Franco Zeffirelli’s Carmen by contrast took a completely different path. Originally designed by Director Gamsjäger, due to the director’s scheduling conflicts the production could not be mounted until 9 December 1978 under Egon Seefehlner, which stoked up expectations in general. The première conducted by Carlos Kleiber and featuring Plácido Domingo, Elena Obraztsová, and Juri Mazurok was broadcast live by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation and ultimately became an unparalleled media spectacle. Extensive supporting programmes on television, articles and pictures in the newspapers made the production a major event from the outset. In any case, the very film-like production survived for forty years on the schedule and created the visual setting for countless different casts. It was the nature of the beast that the original stage direction fell increasingly apart, with more and more outside ideas and approaches added. The première of the current production by Calixto Bieito was shown on television and streamed all over the world on 21 February 2021 (due to Corona, two weeks later than planned and in an empty auditorium). Under the baton of Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the singers included Anita Rachvelishvili (Carmen), Piotr Beczała (Don José), Erwin Schrott (Escamillo) and Vera-Lotte Boecker (Micaëla). In view of the fact that with well over 1,000 performances Carmen is also



one of the most performed works the Wiener Staatsoper, mentioning the great singers and conductors who have appeared goes well beyond the scope of this article. For this reason, we are dispensing with extensive name-drop-

ping. Nevertheless: an article about the performance history of Carmen at the Wiener Staatsoper cannot end without mentioning at least Agnes Baltsa, Elīna Garanča, José Carreras, Luis Lima, Roberto Alagna and Ruggero Raimondi.




Carmen corrects the misunderstanding of love: she confesses to this egoism. Her generosity of soul is to claim that she has none and does not wish to possess or keep anything in this world or the next. This gesture of externalisation, the abandonment of every claim of the right to dominate, is one of the figures of reconciliation that have been granted to humanity. It is a promise of finite liberty. The prohibition on transcendence destroys the illusion that nature is anything more than mortal. This is the precise function of music in Carmen.


CARMEN SEASON 2023/24 PREMIÈRE OF THE PRODUCTION 21.2.2021 Publisher WIENER STAATSOPER GMBH, Opernring 2, 1010 Wien Director DR. BOGDAN ROŠČIĆ Music Director PHILIPPE JORDAN Administrative Director DR. PETRA BOHUSLAV General Editors SERGIO MORABITO, ANDREAS LÁNG, OLIVER LÁNG Design & concept EXEX Layout & typesetting MIWA MEUSBURGER Image concept: MARTIN CONRADS, BERLIN (Cover) All performance photos MICHAEL PÖHN Printed by PRINT ALLIANCE HAV PRODUKTIONS GMBH, BAD VÖSLAU TEXT REFERENCES All texts were taken from the première programme of the Vienna State Opera (21 February 2021). COVER IMAGE Txema Salvans, from: The waiting game I, ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS Steven Scheschareg (Synopsis) and Andrew Smith (all other texts). Reproduction only with approval of Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Dramaturgy. Abbreviations are not marked. Holders of rights who were unavailable are requested to make contact regarding retrospect compensation.

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