Bizet’s great opera recently had its 1000th performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Carmen’s popularity is worldwide, yet the work started as a failure. Like The Barber of Seville, La Traviata, and Madame Butterfly it forms the quartet of sublime masterpieces that were unsuccessful (or even fiascos) when they were first performed.
Carmen’s initial failure is especially poignant as Bizet died three months after its unsuccessful premiere in 1875. His death, at age 36, has been attributed to heart disease but has never been definitively defined. Regardless of cause, Bizet’s demise before he could even begin work on another opera is a loss that is still palpable.
His earlier work is good, but not anywhere near the level of Carmen. He wrote an opera, The Pearl Fishers, in 1863 which is only recently being performed with some regularity. The Met will do it next season for the first time in almost a century. He wrote a symphony as a graduation exercise which was lost and not performed until 1935. There’s other interesting music, as well, but until Carmen he was just a promising composer.
Why did Carmen initially fail? There are many reasons. It was written for the Opéra-Comique where ‘family’ fare was the norm. A licentious gypsy who is murdered by an army deserter was asking a lot of the company’s usual clientele. The chorus and orchestra didn’t like their parts. The first performance lasted four and a half hours. It was so original and complex when compared to the company’s usual fare that audiences may have been bewildered. Yet foreign audiences took to it immediately
Over the next year, the opera had 48 performances at the Opéra-Comique, often to half empty houses. For a while it shared the theater with the much more popular Verdi Requiem which the LSO will perform next October. Carmen then disappeared from Paris until 1883.
Despite failure at home, the opera rapidly traveled around the world reaching as far as New York in 1878. Everywhere away from Paris it was a success. Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bismark, and Nietzsche immediately recognized its genius. Eventually, the Parisians were brought around and Carmen was universally hailed as being as close to perfection as a human can construct. The Opéra-Comique has now performed Carmen more than 2,500 times.
The opera was written with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, but outside of Paris it is almost always given with recitatives, usually in the version scored by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud, the musician who also completed Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.
Carmen’s libretto was written by the team of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy based on the novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée. Bizet subsequently made many changes to the libretto.
The story told in the opera is quite different from the novella on which it is based. Carmen is not the amoral schemer of the original, but a force of untamed nature. Don José is not a murderer who joined the army as an alternative to jail, but rather a naive country boy who is transfixed by Carmen and who gradually turns into a jealous, rage consumed killer.
A word about Don. In Spain the title is an honorific bestowed on a person of high birth or achievement. A corporal in the army with the dirt of the countryside still on his boots would never be referred to as Don. The word’s use is one of several misunderstandings of Spanish culture present in this very French opera.
Though full of colorful characters, Carmen is really about just two – Carmen and José. Carmen does not change from beginning to end. She is entirely free. Her interest in José is slight. She never says she loves him as she does to the bullfighter Escamillo. In fact she loses interest in him before their relationship has barely begun when he decides to leave her and return to his barracks after the bugle for retreat sounds. That he doesn’t is only because his superior officer Zuniga shows up. The ensuing confrontation forces José to flee with Carmen and the smugglers as the second act ends.
José, in contrast to Carmen, undergoes a dreadful metamorphosis. He changes from a naive country boy, to a besotted lover, and finally into a homicidal demon who driven mad by unrequited love, murders the object of his fierce love. His disintegration forms the core of the opera.
At the start of the third act, Carmen is ready to be rid of him. The arrival of Escamillo, whom Carmen had put on temporary hold in the preceding scene, gives her the perfect opportunity to transfer her amorous allegiance. Escamillo is everything José is not. The torero is brave, confident, and secure in his sexuality. We can suspect that José is not a good lover and that Escamillo is.
When Escamillo first appears and sings his famous song he’s called a toreador. The term was archaic even in 1875 when the opera first appeared. A bullfighter is a matador, or a torero, or occasionally a lidiador – but not a toreador. How much Bizet and his librettists knew about La corrida de toros I don’t know. I imagine he liked the way ‘toreador’ fit the tune from which the term is so well known.
In the last act Carmen accompanies Escamillo to the entrance of the bullring in Seville, but doesn’t enter it. She knows José is in the vicinity and that he likely will kill her if she doesn’t return to him which she will never do. So why does she wait for him? Carmen is afraid of nothing except time. A middle aged Carmen is impossible, much less an old one. The cards foretold her death in the third act and she is not afraid to confront it in the fourth while at the apogee of her youth. She has to die when she does. José’s role in her life is to end it at the right time.
Carmen presages the verismo (realism) style of opera that came to Italy about 15 years later. Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci are the two most famous examples of verismo opera. Puccini is sometimes included among verismo composers, but his art is too subtle and goes beyond gritty realism to grant him membership in the verismo school.
While Bizet’s masterpiece is obviously about the seamy side of life, its melodic inspiration, technical perfection, and overwhelming dramatic impact are in a class by itself. Only Verdi at his best can match Carmen in the totality of lyric genius.
One has to struggle to find something to criticize, but if there is a weakness it’s Micaëla, the country girl who convinces José to leave Carmen because his dying mother wants to see him. She’s essential to the story and has both a beautiful duet and aria, but compared to all the other characters (especially Carmen) she’s dull and slows the action; some auditors may be relieved when she leaves for good in the third act.
The music is so well known and so ingrained in our collective consciousness that virtually anyone who hears the complete opera for the first time will recognize most of its numbers. But Carmen’s final scene deserves comment.
Carmen and José are alone on the stage as they should be since the opera is their story. They are outside the bullring. Their violent exchange is punctuated by outbursts from inside the arena marking Escamillo’s triumph. There are no melodies here – just raw passion. This is one of opera’s most remarkable and brilliantly constructed scenes. When well performed it shakes audiences to their core. Art rarely reaches the level of this opera as a whole and of its conclusion in particular. Words are inadequate. Carmen itself says more than can any commentator.