The opera premiered, three months before at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, on March 3, 1875, to a less than enthusiastic reception. Du Locle, manager of the theater had forewarned patrons about the nature of the story, but even this was not enough to prevent the disappointing results.
It is difficult for today's audiences to comprehend the reason for this failure but, to the Parisian bourgeoisie of late Nineteenth Century France, Carmen represented everything that went against the grain of propriety-even if members of the bourgeoisie were the worst offenders. The notion of a sexually liberated woman who lures "respectable" men to err on her command, was not something the theater's rigid patrons were willing to face, or accept. Neither could the marriage brokers, who practiced their trade at the Comique, afford the glorification of such a woman, and the negative impact she would have on their business. Respectable Parisians did not want their daughters and impressionable young sons to be corrupted by the depravity portrayed on stage. Ironically, in its haste to condemn, society made Carmen the talk of Paris.
In reality the opera was not the dismal failure it has been reported; it played forty performances–a respectable run under any circumstance. Whether the public came out of curiosity, enjoyment of the opera, approval of the subject matter, or out of respect for the dead composer, is hard to tell, and irrelevant. What matters is that within a short period of time Carmen achieved the success it rightly deserved from its inception, and it has remained one of the most popular works on the operatic stage. Carmen and Verdi's Traviata share the distinction of being the two operas every female singer wants to add to her repertoire–be she qualified to sing it or not. In Traviata the pathos and the musical challenges are the calling cards. In Carmen, it is the secret, inner desire in people and the excitement of being "bad" which makes it so alluring for singer and public alike.
Carmen, like that other "bad" girl of opera, Dalila, is a complex character straddling the fine line between love and hate; not only hers, but the audience's. These two characters are ageless, and somewhat open to interpretation, though Carmen's, as Dalila's, ever present seductive nature remains the moving force behind the story.
That the public would shy away from the subject of the opera is understandable, but the critics, and cognoscenti alike did not recognize Bizet's genius (one periodical referred to the score as having music which "babbled" on and on), or his greater contribution to the musical stage: Bizet's Carmen paved the way for the "verismo" movement in opera.1 In Carmen, Bizet was the first to strip the sugarcoated varnish off the story and expose people's emotions at their most basic level. Disregarding convention and the effect on the public, Bizet took people from the lower echelons of society and made them the protagonists.2 In rising the heretofore mundane characters to protagonists, Bizet eliminated their need to reform or apologize for their behavior. Their misfortunes became real, and a way of life to be appreciated and understood by the audience.
On hearing the opening bars of the prelude, one thing is obvious: Bizet's music is vulgar as it is sublime, powerful, and seductive; and like the main protagonist, it lures and captivates the listener. Bizet further personalizes the score by infusing original Spanish music and color into an unusually passionate score that is definitely French in origin.3 Bizet's genius lays not only in the creation of a new musical style by combining elements from the Comique, Grand Opera, and local popular music, but also in the delicate psychological web he creates between the music and the characters.
The libretto for Carmen by Henri Meihac and Ludovic Halévy is based on Prosper Mérimée's novella, which in turn is based on factual events.
This 2005 performance of Carmen is a production of St. Margarthen Summer Festival in Austria, and it took place in what remains of the largest open quarry from the Roman days. The festival, brainchild of Wolfgang Werner, started in 1994 with a performance of Verdi's Nabucco, and the original 11,000 spectators have now grown to over 150,000.
The 70 meter wide, 7,000 square meter stage is the largest natural-setting stage in Europe. As such it has many advantages, and many more disadvantages. In the former category the stage allows for grand sets,4 and hundreds of participants with room to spare–maybe too much room. In the latter category, because of the size of the quarry, the singers are miked, and stage directions are difficult to follow on short notice. Walking off stage, or walking from one end to the other requires large blocks of time which creates some awkward still moments. In a stage this size, the action also needs to be more exaggerated, contrary to film which is more intimate. All in all, though, the staging is quite effective, and the four hundred plus actors, dancers, coachmen, horsemen, street vendors, and singers do their best to keep the action realistic.
This production opens on an ironical note: There is a wedding taking place and the wedding party is witness to the action on stage. The title role is sung by Bulgarian mezzo-soprano, Nadia Krasteva. Born in 1976 she has quickly risen to become a very popular and sought after singer in Europe, Vienna in particular. Krasteva has a dusky, velvet like textured instrument which she uses well in the more dramatic moments of the opera.
Krasteva's Carmen is not sexually alluring; instead, she seduces her men with the playful youthfulness and pranks of a teenager. Krasteva's exotic good looks, and the obvious enjoyment she gets out of flirting and being mischievous, compensates for and lets her get away with the lack of seductive powers in her interpretation.
"Près des remparts de Séville" is vocally interesting, though the constant movement about the stage interferes with the subtlety in the dialogue. Krasteva is dramatically secure in "Je vairs dancer en votre honneur." She is also effective in Act III, "Voyons, que j'essaie à montour" where Carmen lays out the cards and realizes the eminence of death. From the moment Don José confronts her in Act IV, Krasteva's Carmen displays a sudden dramatic maturity and vocal control: a gasp when Don José unexpectedly touches her; the look of disdain in her face and the serene, but determined look in "Non, je ne t'aime plus;" the defiant "...libre elle mourra;" the ridiculing laughter in "Je l'aime...," the determination in "Non! Non! Cette bafue..." when she takes the ring Don José had given her and throws it to the ground, to the final moments when Don José stabs her and she lays on the ground, her body quivering to the last breath.
In comparison to other tenor roles, the character of Don José does not inspire hero worship, nor is it particularly likeable. Yet, unlike the opera's namesake it offers the tenor, who sings it well, ample opportunity for character development and range of emotions. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antoņenko has a pleasant timbre and youthful good looks, but his interpretation falls short in development of the character, and his instrument often appears to be underpowered for the dramatic intensity of the role.
"La fleur que tu m'avis jetée" is good, but Antoņenko's vocal range at times sounds lower than required for the role, and his voice is shrill towards the end of the aria. To be such a young singer, he displays a disturbing wobble in several of the less difficult moments. He is better in the more rapid exchanges as in the confrontation with Escamillo, and later towards the end of the act with Carmen. Antoņenko comes into his own in Act IV where he is more dramatic and better in control of his instrument. He is supplicating in "Je ne menace pas!," and "Carmen, il est temps encore." He is technically superior in "Carmen,je t'aime, je t'adore...ah! Ne me quitte pas!" Anto nenko imbues the character with passion and violence in "Ainsi, le salut de mon âme..."
It has been argued that Bizet invented the character of Micaëla with her sweeter than sweet image as a compromise to the patrons at the Comique. Perhaps the composer had other ideas. Micaëla is young, she is sweet, but she is also a woman in bloom, filled with desire and a foil for Carmen's overpowering presence. For all the truth and raw emotion in Bizet's score, the character of Micaëla is often played as an outsider, an enigma, and somewhat misplaced—just as Åsa Elmgren's interpretation.
Elmgren has a pleasant voice and her rendition is honest, but her Micaëla is at times stiff, deliberate and too matter-of-fact. To compound this, or maybe because of, Elmgren's self-conscious French is non-idiomatic, betraying her Nordic background. Elmgren does warm up to deliver a pleasant "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" in Act III, as well as in the later confrontation with Carmen.
Escamillo is the perfect counterpart to Carmen (her "long lost soul mate"), and he also serves to further emphasize Don José's weakness of character. Escamillo's profession and his personal life are wedded into one. He takes risks, he is cool in the face of danger, he is self involved, and interested only in temporary pleasures. For Escamillo there is no difference between fighting a bull in the ring, and taking a woman to bed–in either case he always comes out the winner, in either case he knows it is only temporary. His march-like music in Act II enables him to display his virile masculinity, and sets the tone for his personality: Escamillo is not a show off, but he is narcissistic and arrogant, all the while oozing his intoxicating sexuality. No such assurance in Sebastian Holecek's performance; instead, the Austrian baritone comes off as though trying very hard to play "Escamillo." There is no legato in his singing, he truncates some of the words, and overall appears ill at ease.
Somewhat annoying to this listener's ears, is Holecek's difficulty in pronouncing the letter "R" in "toréador." The improper roll of this letter is, in itself, a natural result of speaking a foreign language with an accent. As such, it would not be a problem in general conversation; in a performance, though, this easy to overcome detail becomes very distracting, and it is not acceptable.
Of the four principals Grasteva is vocally the best. The other three principals appear to be rehearsing their roles instead of performing them. In fairness, those in charge of the production should have devoted more time to the singers' diction and understanding of the French language. This would have eliminated the appearance that the singers do not know the meaning of the words they are singing.
In the end, the lesser characters of Zuniga, Mercédès, Frasquita, Morales, Dancaïre and Remendado, were better served by their interpreters. The Act II quintet "Nous avons en tête une affaire" between Mercédès, Frasquita, Remendado, Dancaïre and Carmen is vocally and visually one of the best moments in the opera. The singing and the acting is natural, adding to the success of the ensemble. The card duet/scene between Frasquica and Mercédès, "Mêlons! Coupons!" is better, still, with both singers fully in control of their instruments and the dramatic situation.
The chorus of cigarette girls sings rather well, in particular during their first appearance. "Dans l'air nous suivons des yeux" is sung softly and delicately sharp in contrast to the words they are singing. Perhaps the size of the stage (or lack of rehearsal) prevents them from "becoming" the character in the fighting scenes outside of the cigarette factory later in the act. The same goes for the men who are so eager to woo them.
The orchestra gives a spirited performance, and Maestro Märzendorfer leads with conviction.
Visually, this is a pleasant production though not without exceptions. As mentioned above, the large stage allows for elaborate scenery, and special effects. For Carmen there are copies of famous landmarks in Seville, including bridges, churches, taverns, and along the upper ridge of the quarry there are several windmills and other "Spanish" buildings. The public scenes are peopled as public scenes are in real life: with men and women coming and going about their business in ignorance of what other people (main characters) may be up to. There are carriages, people on horseback, dancers, children at play, café patrons taking a break in their hectic day, etc. The opening of Act III shows the smugglers on ropes descending the face of the quarry, their black capes dancing in the night air, their shadows reflected against the stark whiteness of the cliffs.
The choreography, too, leaves something to be desired, especially as the corps de ballet is from Valencia, Spain. The dances are not realistically original, but stereotypical in the interpretation of what Flamenco should be: much emotionless hand clapping, arm waving, pseudo dramatic poses, and skirt swirling in place of the real soul of Spanish folk dance. The one exception is the dance sequence during the Entracte to Act IV.
A major distraction is the visibility of microphones. Of course, in a vast stage as this one, microphones are a necessity. This is not an issue for the members of the audience, or under normal circumstances, where the microphones would be discreetly attached to a lapel, or blouse. On film, and with close-up shots it is different. Instead, in this production, the microphones are attached above and center of the singers' eyebrows, with the antenna fed through their hair, visible at the top, and coming out of the back of their heads–-memories of the TV program, My Favorite Martian.
It is never enjoyable to put down anyone's efforts. In particular this cast, as they are all fairly young and it is clear they are trying their best to fulfill the public's expectations. Overall, though, the production is flawed, the performers are ill prepared, and uncomfortable with themselves.
The performance quality in Act IV makes one wish the entire opera had been as effective.
Daniel Pardo © 2006
- Allen Mallach, Pietro Mascagni and his Operas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002)
- The New Penguin Opera Guide, Amanda Holden (ed.) (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001)
- David Ewen, Great Composers: 1300-1900, (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1966)
- Antoine Goléa, Carmen (liner notes, 1990)
- Georg Solti, Carmen (liner notes, 1975)
1Verismo in reference to opera is somewhat misleading. The term had been in use in literary circles for many years in Italy (Naturaliste, in France), and applied to the works of Giovanni Verga and his contemporaries. In 1883 Verga turned his short story of 1880, Cavaleria Rusticana, into a very popular play staring Eleanora Duse in the role of Santuzza. It was Mascagni's 1890 opera based on Verga's play which led to the transfer of the term from literature to opera.
2The operas presented at the Comique often had disreputable, deceiving, lower class characters but they were almost always cast in a comedic situation and invariably would repent at the end of the opera.
3The music for Habanera is an original Spanish piece written by Sebastian Yradier, which Bizet adapted to the opera. Bizet also added music to the lead character in the form of canto jondo, a style of sad singing from Andalusia.
4For the production of Turandot the forbidden city was recreated on the stage.