THE THREE FACES OF CARMEN
Carmen is one of the three or four most popular operas ever written. For example, between its premiere performance in 1875 (at Paris' Opera Comique )and 1951 it had been presented over 2700 times in that house alone. That's an average of more than 35 times per year, in that one house!
Part of the reason for Carmen's success is, of course, its compellingly beautiful music. Bizet, one of the most promising of young French composers (he was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1857, at age 19) had never quite achieved his potential as a composer until he produced his ever-popular incidental music for Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlesienne which opened in October, 1872. Carmen followed, in March, 1875, but Bizet died three months later. There is considerable similarity between the music of L'Arlesienne and Carmen; in fact, some of the Carmen music was originally intended for L'Arlesienne, most notably the entr'acte of Acts II and III and the third-act trio of Carmen, Frasqita and Mercedes (plotting to neutralize the customs agents at the border) "Quant au douanier, c'est notre affaire" (translated in the supertitles as "Just leave the guards to us! When they see a pretty lass, they'll want a little romance and then they'll let us pass.")
But equally important to the popularity of Carmen is its dramatic structure, Bizet's conception of the dramatic action and the music as an organic whole. (Bizet was a disciple of Wagner's, and was evidently attempting to emulate the latter's Gesamtkunstwerk in his own music.) As a result, Carmen is the first verismo opera; verismo is the school which became popular about twenty years later in such works as Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana and most of the operas of Puccini. These operas feature ordinary people leading ordinary lives, as distinguished from the mythic heroes, nobles and warriors which formed the subject of most of the earlier operas. In fact the French audiences of 1875 were not quite prepared for verismo, and there was some objection to Carmen as a result.
So, in order properly to appreciate Carmen, it is important to thoroughly understand the story. But this is made difficult by the three versions which exist. The original source is the novelette by Prosper Merimee, the second is the first version of the opera (with spoken dialogue) and the third is the Vienna version, rewritten by Bizet's close friend Ernest Guiraud to incorporate recitative in place of the dialogue. It is the last version which you will hear tonight, and which is almost always the choice of opera companies today, but it suffers from the earlier version in that a great deal of the background material is suppressed. (The reason is, of course, that sung recitative is a less efficient means of disseminating information than is spoken dialogue, so cuts were necessary to avoid the opera's becoming excessively long.) So to help you understand what is going on, here is some of that background, taken from the novelette and from the original, Opera Comique, version of the opera.
Don Jose' is actually Don Jose' Lizzarraengoa, a Navarrais Basque who was forced to flee after killing a man during an argument over a game of paume (hand tennis). He came to Andalusia (whose capital was Seville) and enlisted in the Spanish dragoons, advancing rapidly to the rank of corporal. It helps in understanding the action of the opera to remember that Jose' is extremely hot-tempered and while not really a hardened criminal is a murderer and a fugitive from justice.
As in the opera, Jose' falls under the spell of a gypsy, La Carmencita, and is imprisoned and degraded in rank for allowing her to escape while he is ostensibly escorting her to prison. After his release (he has served a one-month sentence) he kills a lieutenant who has ordered him away from Carmen's company (it is his superior Zuniga, who in the opera is not killed but only temporarily captured--near the end of Act II). So Jose' is, as in the opera, compelled to join the band of smugglers. During Jose's tenure with the smugglers, many of them are killed by soldiers (and one, Garcia the one-eyed, is killed by Jose' in an argument over cards--Jose's hot temper is manifesting itself again). Jose' is himself injured by soldiers, and Carmen nurses him back to health. Jose' vainly entreats Carmen to escape with him to the New World, but she has by this time fallen in love with a noted picador of Granada, named Lucas (Escamillo, the toreador in the opera). Jose' returns to the smugglers' band, but one day Carmen goes to visit Lucas in Cordoba. Jose' follows her there, and when she refuses to return to him he kills her in a jealous rage. He turns himself in to the authorities (just as in the opera), and he is sentenced to death (by garrote).
So, the opera is reasonably faithful to Merimee's plot. The problem is that a number of incidents occur which mean little or nothing to the audience which is unfamiliar with the original. These incidents are more fully explained in the earlier version of the opera, but even so there are some areas of confusion.
The first has to do with the Micaela, the soprano lead, who does not appear in the novelette, and is introduced for purely musical reasons ( a primo soprano is needed as a foil to Carmen, the primo mezzo). The early version of the opera makes things pretty clear vis-a-vis Micaela and Jose's mother; she has followed Jose' to Seville, her husband being dead. She has brought with her the orphaned, seventeen-year-old Micaela, who has been a ward of the family for some years. In the truly beautiful first-act duet between Micaela and Jose' ("Et tu lui dira' que sa mere"--"And tell him that his mother dreams of him day and night. She's pardoned him, and prays he will always do what's right") one might wonder what Jose's mother has to pardon him for, but from reading Merimee we know.
In another incident in the first act, Zuniga is gently teasing Jose about Micaela, who was at the guardhouse earlier looking for him. Her refers to her "Une jeune fille charmante...jupe bleu et natte tombante". ("A charming girl...blue skirt and long braids.") Blue skirt and braids were customarily worn by young women of Navarre.
Further along in Act I, when Carmen is arrested for wounding Manuelita with a knife, according to both Merimee' and the early version of the opera Carmen first attempts to bribe Jose' with a magic stone, which purportedly carries aphrodisiac power. Failing in this, she claims to be a Navarraise (somehow, perhaps from his accent, she has guessed Jose's background). Only then does she offer her love in exchange for Jose's releasing her. The last segment of this scene ia the only one to survive in the modern version of the opera.
In Act II, Jose', having been released from prison, heads towards Lillas Pastia's tavern (near the walls of Seville--presumably outside them) singing a tuneful ditty "The dragoon of Alcala'" in which the dragoon threatens to make his adversary "bite the dust," an expression one would have thought came from the American West, but evidently not. The choice of Alcala' is obscure in the opera, but in the original story, Carmen had sent Jose' a loaf of the famous Alcala' bread containing a file, in order to help him escape. She also enclosed a gold piece. However, he decides to stay in jail and serve his sentence. From this, and the subsequent dialogue when Jose' and Carmen meet in the tavern (one has to go to the original version of the opera to learn this), we find that Jose', renegade that he may be, still has a well-developed sense of honor. This is the reason he refused to escape from jail and become, ipso facto, a deserter. This attitude carries over into the next scene, when he is determined to leave Carmen and return to the barracks when the retreat has sounded. (The counterpoint between the bugle call and Carmen's song and dance is one of the musical high points of the opera.) Only Jose's jealous nature, which leads him to attack his superior officer Zuniga, forces him to desert after all.
From this point on, Jose' is a smuggler, an outlaw and a slave to Carmen's whims and passions. In the Merimee' story, the slow degeneration of his soul, his inevitable drift from crime to crime and his mad jealousy at Carmen's dalliances is seen much more clearly, but considering the constraints of the musical stage, Carmen's librettists, Meilhac and Halevy, have done a splendid job. Even from the present version of the opera it is clear that it, despite its name, is really about Don Jose'; he is the psychological center of the drama.
One last item of interest has to do with the difference between the original text and the modern score of the opera with regard to the fight, in Act III, between Escamillo and Jose'. In the earlier version, Escamillo first subdues Jose', but magnanimously grants him his life. However, Jose' insists on resuming the battle, and but for the timely intervention of the Gypsies, would have killed Escamillo. This little incident is used to emphasize the degeneration of Jose's soul.
Some comments about the music: The overture, as was the custom in those days, consists of musical selections from the opera (three in this case). First we hear a sprightly dance in 2:4 time which occurs again twice during the first scene of the fourth act as the crowd gathers for the bullfight. This is followed by the famous Toreador theme, in march time, from Act II (reprised in Acts III and IV). Finally, the music modulates to the sinister fate motif which is heard many times in the opera, most notably in Act I when Carmen first speaks to Josè; in Act II, before Joséís great aria, the so-called "Flower Song;" and again in Act IV just prior to the last, fatal, meeting between José and Carmen. The same motif is speeded up, into sixteenth notes, allegro (rather than eighth notes, andante) and serves as a motif of Carmen herself, heard for the first time just before her initial entrance in Act I, just before she sings the famous Habanera. In his use of motifs, Bizet was following the lead of his contemporary, Richard Wagner, venturing far beyond anything existing up to that time in French opera (or, for that matter, in Italian opera).
The original, Opera Comique, version of Carmen is rarely seen in the United States--it is more popular in France, where the audience can be expected to understand the dialogue. However, I did have the opportunity to see the early version at the Metropolitan Opera some twenty years ago, and it was a stirring performance. James McCracken portrayed Don Jose' and Marilyn Horne, Carmen. It is well worth trying to see this version at some point in your opera-going career, particularly if you have a working knowledge of the French language.