A Letter to Bizet’s Carmen

carmen-stamp-1967

(Image from Music at Ease)

Ah Carmen, you are the most popular (certainly most performed) French opera on the planet. Your livret could be a tragedy by Racine and your score is full of tunes known the world over. And yet you failed, rather horrifically actually, on your opening night. That is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, La Traviata and Madama Butterfly both died only to be resurrected and reborn to immortality, and yet there is something about you Carmen that makes your failure at the Opera Comique on the 3rd of March 1875 not really all that much of a surprise.

According to Ludovic Halevy, co-librettist and cousin of Bizet’s wife Geneviève, daughter of the composer Fromental Halevy, the first act was well received with much applause and numerous curtain calls. The beginning of the second act was also well received, but for some reason just after Escamillo’s entrance aria, the audience became cold. In act 3, only Micaela’s aria (today generally seen as the weakest and most formless in the act) was applauded (although Gounod apparently shouted that Bizet had stolen the melody from him, and it is so pallid that this might actually be true). The final act was meet with a “glacial” reception, something which today simply seems bizarre unless the audience had become so convinced that they were witnessing a flop.

Now it is true that the third act of Carmen is certainly the weakest (although this is comparing three magnificent and almost unequaled in all music acts to one that is perfectly fine, just not to the same level as the others), and yes Micaela is the most mind-numbingly thankless soprano role in the standard repertoire, but the only thing I can think of that changes in Carmen following Escamillo’s aria is the introduction of the bandits and the smuggling element into the plot, providing the opera with a grittiness that probably just didn’t jell with the family audiences at the Comique?

Up to this point the score consists of rather well done faux-Spanish music, a chilling death theme, a series of amusing choruses (including one for children), an attempted assault, three of the greatest pseudo-Spanish arias of all time, a good duet for soprano and tenor which plot wise goes no where because of a successful assault in a cigarette factory, an escape, a Romany dance, and a Toreador song. All rather standard stuff for an opera comique (or for any 19th century opera). But then we suddenly get smugglers (really tuneful smugglers mind you) followed by a magnificent love duet and tenor romance which apparently Parisians didn’t like (because they were deaf?). And to cap it all off a nomadic aria and closing chorus, but we also get the beginnings of the real downward spiral in Don Jose’s character, from which we never recover. I’m not saying this bit of psychological theatre is bad (far from it), but apparently it wasn’t want Paris wanted in 1875.

Act three opens with a beautiful entr’acte, a chorus of smugglers (yeah more of them, I know, we are surrounded by them now) and the Card Trio. Then comes one of my favourites and then Micaela returns with her Gounod-esque death wish aria. The last act is just lovely, the Spanish prelude, the Bullfight Parade, the final duet Carmen-Don Jose. Yeah the in-between stuff can be a little ridiculous (such as when Fraquita and Mercedes warn Carmen about Don Jose’s presence to the most sunny of tunes), and yeah the final murder is barbaric, but this is opera and by those standards, Carmen sort of had it coming to her. Not so much its initial reception.

Perhaps you were too ahead of your time. Maybe that is why today we all love you so much!

FURTHER READING:

“Carmen”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Last modified 1 October 2018. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen#Premiere_and_initial_run

“The Music of Carmen“. Music with Ease.com. www.musicwithease.com/bizet-carmen-music.html

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6 thoughts on “A Letter to Bizet’s Carmen

  1. Yes, its failure is surprising. Op-Com audiences were used to operas about bandits and smugglers; they’re in half of Auber’s, and parodied in Offenbach’s Brigands. (Cough) But Carmen was ‘immoral” – and she died.

    Here’s Félix Clément:
    “Je crois qu’il n’y a aucun profit à s’associer à ses conceptions fantasques où le sentiment de la nature n’a aucune part, où ne brille aucun élan généreux, dépourvues enfin de toute inspiration lyrique. M. Bizet en a fait la cruelle expérience. Son opéra renferme de beaux fragments, mais l’étrangeté du sujet l’a lancé dans la bizarrerie et l’incohérence.

    Voilà cet homme, à partir de ce moment, pris d’une passion insensée pour cette vile créature, et, durant quatre actes, il deviendra successivement, et presque sans remords, parjure, déserteur, bandit, voleur, contrebandier, assassin.

    Il paraît qu’on ne se donne même plus la peine de faire des vers, dans ce genre de livrets à l’usage des auteurs impressionnistes. La recherche du pittoresque et de la couleur locale a beaucoup trop préoccupé M. Bizet dans cet ouvrage ; en second lieu, il a voulu donner des gages aux doctrinaires qui s’intitulent les apôtres de la musique de l’avenir, en rompant avec ce qu’on regardait jusqu’ici comme les traditions du goût, la satisfaction de l’oreille, l’harmonie, dans le sens concret et spécial du mot. Enfin, lorsqu’il s’est résigné à rester lui-même, c’est-à-dire un musicien très bien doué, ayant fait de fortes études, possédant l’art d’écrire, ayant les qualités propres au compositeur français, la clarté, le tour mélodique, le goût, l’esprit, la sensibilité, il a su tirer de ce livret, aussi mauvais dans le fond que dans la forme, des idées musicales d’une valeur réelle et qui pourront survivre à la pièce. J’espère qu’un honneur posthume lui sera réservé et que son œuvre si considérable sera protégée contre la mauvaise impression laissée par le poème. Il sera nécessaire de refaire le livret, d’en retrancher les vulgarités, de lui ôter ce caractère de réalisme qui ne convient pas à une œuvre lyrique, de faire de Carmen une bohémienne capricieuse et non une fille de joie, de don José un ensorcelé d’amour, mais non pas un être vil et odieux. Les deux rôles du toréador et de Micaëla sont excellents ; aussi le musicien les a-t-il bien traités. Il a trouvé pour le premier la note énergique, franche, sonore, je dirai presque fanfaronne, et pour le second la tendresse émue et l’accent du cœur. Laissant dans les ombres de la musique sans avenir de trop longues pages de la partition, j’appellerai l’attention du lecteur sur les passages suivants….”

    Et bof.

    Even Auber’s Manon Lescaut was thought racy. The heroine’s a “bad” girl, who dies.

    Clément again:
    “Le roman de l’abbé Prévost a fourni les principaux épisodes de la pièce. M. Scribe a déployé une grande habileté à déguiser le fond immoral de l’intrigue ; mais décidément cette histoire a des chapitres trop chargés d’ignominie pour plaire sur une scène lyrique. … Il en résulte que l’auteur peut s’adresser à lui avec plus de franchise et s’abandonner à la peinture de certains tableaux sans trop s’exposer à déplaire ; tandis que la pièce s’adresse à un public composé d’individus qui sans le savoir surveillent leurs impressions mutuelles, et communiquent entre eux moralement comme par un courant magnétique. En voilà assez sur la tentative malheureuse de M. Scribe. Si nous passons à la musique, nous ne pouvons que regretter que tant de talent, de grâce, d’habileté aient été dépensés d’une manière éphémère et avec une telle prodigalité sur un sujet ingrat. “

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    1. You really want me to review Offenbach’s Les brigands!

      Well I guess you haven’t been harping on me to do any of the others. Let me finish my thesis draft and I’ll see what I can do next week.

      What did you think of my format change here? I want to continue for the most part writing Forman style reviews but I thought rarely doing a “Letter to an Opera” short essay might be fun. Apparently Magyar Posta (the Hungarian Postal Service) has produced a series of postage stamps depicting various operas, I might work with that.

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      1. I love that production of Brigands; it’s a lot of fun!

        I like the approach; it’s a more personalized attitude. Will you just be using it for famous operas? “Dear Ring des Nibelungingungingungingungen…”

        Finding the right format is tricky. Originally, I had music, notes, and plot as separate sections; then I toyed with having a long synopsis (which is boring to write).

        Remind me what your thesis is about.

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  2. It is on the Canadian War Museum’s 1812 Bicentennial exhibit and public perception of Government Policy, Education, Commemoration.

    Yeah, my format was given to me by Forman, I love using it (I get to give out “stars” after all!), but with operas he already did I sort of feel bad to “correct” him. It does weed out the famous operas so I dedicate more time for the rare and exotic, but every once in a while I want to comment on something people know about.

    I might do Brigands soon, but I need to get this thesis draft done first. I’m also working on Peter Grimes, although I’m not in love with it. Der Ring! Good lord, must I watch it all a third time, it isn’t like it will end differently! 🙂

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  3. I’m told it is a classic of English opera (whatever that might ultimately mean), and it was specifically mentioned by name by Forman as an omission from his book (he was annoyed to include Lakme instead), so I figure that even if I give it a gamma or worse, I have to do it at some point.

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