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Words or Music, Part 2: Carmen

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Intellectually, I have nothing against modern opera, and I can usually steel myself to try it again, even if the result inevitably turns out to be another tepid stew of tedious language and monotonous music. Emotionally, however, it is the standard repertoire which draws me again and again. These so-called “warhorses” of the operatic repertoire have endured for so long because they speak directly to our adult passions. (Melodrama is, after all, only real life ratcheted up a notch.)

How many of us, like Rigoletto the court jester, have felt humiliated by our employers and plotted elaborate revenge? How many women, like Tosca, have fended off the advances of some lecherous, latter-day Scarpia? How many men, like Canio in Pagliacci, paint on their clown faces to hide the anguish beneath? Does the death of Mimi at the end of La Boheme affect us so deeply because it reflects, somehow, the death of our own youthful ardor and innocence? Now that the Metropolitan Opera season is drawing to a close, I’ve started to look again (as I did in my post of November 25th, 2008) at some of the literary sources of opera—titles which can be found nestled in the stacks of the General Research Division--and have arrived at what some consider the most popular opera of all time: Carmen.

I’ve chosen illustrations from a most unusual edition of Carmen. It combines elements of the original 1847 story, the Bizet opera, and the 1915 silent film directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The principal purpose behind it seems to be as a commercial tie-in with the film--and who even suspected that such cross-pollination existed back then? How odd, as well, that Geraldine Farrar, the famous Metropolitan Opera mezzo, should be starring in a silent version which relied exclusively on her acting ability. The scene illustrated by this photo appears to have no direct relation either to the original story or the opera, but it is clearly the same tempestuous gypsy common to all versions:

“Meanwhile Jose lay down and was watching the stars. . . Carmen was crouched near by, and from time to time she rattled her castanets and hummed a tune. Then, approaching him, as if with the intention of whispering, she kissed him, almost against his will, two or three times. ‘You are the devil,’ he said to her. ‘Yes,’ she answered.”

Interestingly enough, the novelization also includes, in a way, bits of the opera’s music. During the final scene, as Carmen is slipping lifeless from José’s arms, we hear how “Clear on the soft air the sound of the bugles rang out; the ‘Toreador’s Song’ burst forth, and the applause, that announced the triumph of Escamillo and the death of the bull, came to José’s half-deaf ears.”

The novelization runs to 179 extensively elaborated and not-very-well written pages. The original 1847 Prosper Mérimée story, however, is only about 50 pages, with 30 or so actually devoted to the ingredients which comprise the operatic version. Mérimée sets Carmen within the narrative framework of a tale by an archaeologist who, in the first part, encounters the bandit, José; in the second, he meets the gypsy fortune-teller known as la Carmencita; in the third, he again meets Jose in a prison cell where the bandit, awaiting execution, finally tells the story of his obsessive infatuation, which ends in that fatal flash of dagger in the hot sun outside the Cordova bullring. Andrew Brown, in his introduction to the Hesperus Press edition of Carmen, finds that the entire work...

“...is a love story and a piece of cultural anthropology in equal measure, not least because both are based on otherness: even the most intense and passionate love involves the observation of the beloved as if the object were some strange tribe with its own language, beliefs and customs, rituals and superstitions, ways of dressing and eating and making music, and a personal history that we are fascinated by yet find it a struggle to understand.”

The final part of the story is a series of comments by the archaeologist narrator on the lives and habits of gypsies, particularly of gypsy women; these comments would not pass any tests for political correctness, but they do emphasize the concept of cultural otherness that Andrew Brown notes in his introduction, underlining one of the story’s basic themes.

Mérimée describes Carmen as having “a strange and savage beauty, a face which at first made you stand and stare but which you couldn’t forget. Her eyes, especially, had an expression at once voluptuous and untamed that I have never found in any human being.” Due to his obsession with Carmen, José forsakes his adored mother; his sweet but tedious sweetheart, Micaela (in the opera only: she plays no part in the original); and his calling as a soldier.

But my sympathy has always been with Carmen. She may be slutty, cruel, self-absorbed, and without compassion, but she is also an alluring outsider who represents nothing less than pure freedom. “What I want is to be free,” she tells the hopelessly smitten Jose, “and do as I please.”Even at the end, with violence thick in the hot air, she can not bring herself to relent to his entreaties. “I threw myself down at her feet,” says Jose, “I grasped her hands, I shed wet tears on them. I reminded her of all the moments of happiness we had enjoyed together. . . I offered her everything, if only she would love me again.” To which she can only respond, “To love you again is out of the question.” How many women, simply in search of a no-obligations good time, have ended up with a clingy, possessive mama’s boy whose fits of jealousy make both their lives a misery?

Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera is the one of the most world’s most popular for a reason. Once heard, its sinuous and provocative melodies are not forgotten. Its libretto, while not probing or too psychologically complex, is a direct and forceful trip to a place we all seem instinctively to know. The Mérimée story, highly readable although not great literature, is a somewhat different but equally fascinating take on the same theme. The 1915 novelization, which contains a hybrid of Carmen-related elements, is if nothing else an interesting artifact of a bygone era.

Someday I would like to track down that silent-film Carmen, which on the basis of these photos looks like a racy good-time. Although I have never heard Geraldine Farrar’s interpretation of the role, I do know the recordings of Rise Stevens, who makes most other Carmens sound as innocent as Pippi Longstocking. Her dusky mezzo voice could fillet any man, and that’s surely one of Carmen’s principal attributes. . . [You Tube: Rise Stevens “Habanera” Carmen]

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