Utah Opera

So, You Thought You Knew Carmen?

Rubys Inn

by Michael Clive

The visionary theatrical conception of director Peter Brook will make you think again.

When Peter Brook’s radical production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream astounded the theater world in 1970, The New York Times sent critic Clive Barnes to London to see what all the buzz was about. Barnes’ review called Brook “the world’s most imaginative and inventive director. If Brook had done nothing else but this ‘Dream’ he would have deserved a place in theater history.” But Brook went on to do much more, following his landmark ‘Dream’ with a reconceptualized Carmen a decade later. Brook’s Carmen not only proved to be an electrifying theatrical experience; it deepened every opera lover’s perceptions of a character we thought we knew.

Composer Georges Bizet (1837– 1875) and his Carmen

Bizet composed Carmen in 1875, when he was 37 and had a decent reputation as a composer, but was not classed as one of the most important in France; in fact, considering the high expectations of him in musical circles, his career so far had been something of a disappointment. He was one of the youngest pupils ever admitted to the famously rigorous Paris Conservatoire and, as one critic wrote, quickly learned everything the professors could teach. He also won most of the prizes available to be won, including the fabled Prix de Rome—the Conservatoire’s highest award for composition—at age 19. And though his early operas did not hint at the boldness of inspiration in Carmen, they did reveal the freshness of his melodic inspiration and his gift for evoking the vividly detailed, richly textured scenes in music. Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, the librettists for his opera The Pearl Fishers (12 years earlier than Carmen), reportedly said “if we had known Bizet would write such beautiful music, we would have written a better libretto.” And just three years before Carmen, when Bizet composed the incidental music for the play L’Arlésienne, playwright Alphonse Daudet supposedly described his own play as “a glittering flop with the loveliest music in the world.” Tragically, Carmen would prove to be Bizet’s final masterpiece.

In Mérimée’s novella Carmen we learn more about Carmen’s doomed lover Don José than we see in the opera. He is depicted as a rather ordinary man with a troubled past who undergoes a rather extraordinary disintegration. This kind of story, representing female sexuality as a corrupting influence and southern peoples as dangerous, was common in pulp novels of Mérimée’s day; he wrote at a time when Gypsies were seen by most Europeans as a mysterious, filthy, dangerous people. But it’s possible that his view of this subject was more complex, since he had visited Spain and had a relationship with a Gypsy girl. When he returned home and wrote about his experiences, he described the girl as “savage and unsociable,” but his attraction to her was clear, and she may well have been the model for his Carmen.

Another source contemporaneous with Bizet was George Henry Borrow, a British writer and translator who explored Madrid, Granada, Seville and Cordoba. In The Gypsies of Spain, Borrow called them the Zincali, Gitános, or Bohemians, “wild and sybilline,” frequently beautiful but never vulgar. And, he added, they despised Christians. His down-to-earth characterization of the Gypsy woman is sympathetic in its fascination, if also patronizing: The Gitána is “addicted to and famous for fortune-telling,” he said; she is the one woman in the world who “deserves the title of sorceress.… Mention to me a point of deviltry with which that woman is not acquainted, for she is a prophetess…a procuress…and a singer of obscene songs.…Tenacious of the little she possesses, she is a cutpurse and a shoplifter whenever the opportunity shall offer.”

In 1875, the year Carmen was first produced, such characters were simply not seen on the operatic stage. Queen Victoria was still on the throne, and the moralists of her generation were in full cry. Nor were they alone in fighting a decency crusade; the Empress Eugénie had left a mark on Bizet’s France by imposing her rigid, Spanish-Catholic code on it. If such shocking material was to be introduced in opera, the Opéra-Comique was perhaps the last venue where it might have been expected; this venue, after all, was where respectable bourgeoisie could expect reliably inoffensive entertainment. But change was in the air, and it came with Realism. It reached French art and literature through painters including Degas and Courbet, who depicted common laborers and scenes of everyday life, and writers including Balzac and Flaubert, who populated their novels with startlingly real people.

Opera had already taken important steps toward Realism in the 1850s with Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata and Un ballo in maschera. Many of that era’s elegant operagoers thought of the elegant courtesan Violetta Valéry as a virtual prostitute and were shocked by Verdi’s frank, sympathetic depiction of her. In the last act of Traviata he thrust Realism on the audience by showing Violetta on her deathbed suffering the ravages of tuberculosis, a ghastly killer. As for Un ballo, the scene of the king’s assassination was so realistic (and politically unflattering) that when Verdi was about to mount the first production, the Neapolitan censors refused to let him produce the opera as he had written it. They forced him to find another setting for it, and so the action was somewhat incongruously transferred to colonial Boston. For years after the opera’s premiere, censors still insisted on changing the opera’s title, setting, plot and characters. Though these were signs of a trend toward Realism two decades before Carmen arrived on the scene, Bizet’s opera forced it to a level for which the public was not yet prepared.

Controversy erupted over Carmen even before the first rehearsals began. By the time of its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875, arguments over the scandalous plot were raging in cafés and in the theater itself. Bizet was also criticized for producing it at the Opéra-Comique, which was considered a venue where middle-class families could count on wholesome entertainment…”A place where a man can take his wife and daughters.” The first performance of the opera brought the critics out in force, with some attacking the composer for imitating Wagner’s leitmotif technique. Others claimed that he, like Verdi and Wagner, was ruining singers’ voices by drowning them out with “dissonant” and “heavy” orchestral sound. But there were dissenters, including the writer Blaze de Bury, who praised Bizet and said he had “no doubt” about the composer’s future. Another critic praised the “huge talent in this musical score.”

The supposedly calamitous first-season failure of Carmen has entered the canon of music lore. Are the stories true? Probably not. The opera was performed 37 times at the Comique during its first run (though often to a half-empty house), and successfully revived during the next season. A real fiasco would have closed after just one performance, as Verdi’s Un giorno di regno and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly did. Or, in the worst possible scenario, the audience would have forced the curtain down in the middle of the show and made the impresario refund the ticket money, as sometimes happened in Paris.

When Bizet died, three months after the premiere of his wildly revolutionary opera, he knew it would survive. But could he have dreamed that it would become one of the most popular and influential works in the history of the theater, setting the parameters for a new structure and style in opera? Public and critical enthusiasm for Carmen only grows with time. Perhaps the first “daughter” of Carmen was Jules Massenet’s Manon (1884), whose amoral heroine seduces a young seminarian just as he is about to become a priest. From there, the raw brutality of Italian verismo was already within reach. Today, Carmen’s irresistibly passionate music and stark drama have transcended style and geography, and are embraced throughout the world.

Stage Director Peter Brook (b. 1925) and his film 1983 film adaptation La Tragédie de Carmen

Nearly two centuries after its composition, Carmen is often called the world’s most popular opera even though, in the numbers race for productions and performances, it seems to lag slightly behind a few other hits such as Puccini’s La bohème. Statistics notwithstanding, there is something about this opera that puts it ahead of all others in its familiarity and fascination; it’s the opera we’ve all grown up with, the one whose melodies we’re most likely to hear in the schoolyard or as elevator music. Its arias have the best joke lyrics (“Toreador-o, don’t spit on the floor-o…”). Most of all there is Carmen herself, the essential femme fatale, alluring and dangerous.

But in looking more deeply within the story, Brook saw something more compelling, more urgent in Carmen’s character: her preoccupations with the imperative to be free and her sense of the nearness of death. Carmen’s sense of fate and fatalism give a resonance to her Romani identity and the tradition of fortune-telling. This makes her story much more than a romance gone wrong: In Brook’s conception her willfulness, her seeming capriciousness, her almost feral nature make sense. In finding and illuminating these aspects of Carmen, Brook takes his cue from Bizet himself—from the ferocious intensity of the music’s “fate” theme and from Carmen’s reading of the Tarot cards that foretell her death, the moment of her greatest musical intensity in a role full of intense moments.

Bizet was ahead of his time in endowing the character of Carmen with this kind of emotional complexity. In 1875, when he was composing Carmen, the phrase “Gypsy girl” alone was sufficient to conjure a whole world of wanton sensuality and danger, and this world was the focus of the Bizet’s source for his music drama: Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen, a first-person account of life in Spain among the culture we now know as Romani and an early example of fatal attraction.

Brook adds substance to the superficial allure of Spain that fascinated French composers. For them, the Iberian peninsula’s sun and warmth represented something dangerously erotic—a place of impulsive sensuality that presented a challenge to the elegance and discipline of French music. The heady fascination with Spain shows in compositions such as Chabrier’s España, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole, and it suited Bizet’s extraordinary ability to create a sense of place in his music. We hear this in the explosive opening bars of Carmen, which evoke the visceral excitement of the bull ring in Seville that will be the scene of Escamillo’s triumph and Carmen’s demise.

But almost immediately after we hear those smashing, cymbal-accented chords, we hear a second theme that takes Bizet’s drama beyond its source: Carmen’s preoccupation with fate. Against a foreboding background of tremolo strings, Carmen’s “fate theme” evokes the fatal destiny that looms ever closer for her. Brook makes this motif the opera’s musical centerpiece—the reason why Carmen defies authority and ignores bourgeois convention to assert her freedom. With these chords, before the action of the opera even begins, we can sense that Carmen will do anything it takes to get what she wants. But in the end, nothing will be enough. This preoccupation with free will versus destiny was a recurrent theme in music of the Late Romantic period, and in 1888—when Tchaikovsky was writing his fifth symphony—Carmen’s five-note “fate theme” was one of two that inspired the Russian composer in developing his own work on this subject. The other was the famous four-note theme of “fate knocking on the door” in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

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