Carmen Forever

Classic Arts Features   Carmen Forever
Bizet's legendary heroine still inspires artists and opera lovers.

The woman is fascinating, no question about it.

Little by little, we are still getting to know Carmen. The fascination is strong, and Carmen's allure has proved irresistible to artists across the ages ever since Prosper Mérimée first imagined her in his 1845 novella, Carmen. Seville's most celebrated denizen this side of Figaro and Don Juan has seduced poets and musicians, choreographers and filmmakers, and above all she has seduced audiences. She is seducing them still. Carmen has been the object of cultural obsession, extending well beyond the opera house, although it is there on the operatic stage that this fiery heroine is at her most compelling. And, perhaps, in her most tragic incarnation as well.

It took an outsider to create this most Andalusian of characters, and to achieve a clear and affectionate view of an unforgettable woman who was always an outsider herself. Prosper Mérimée was a Frenchman fired up by George Borrow's English potboilers about Spanish gypsies and even more by his own thirst for adventure. Mérimée traveled to Spain in 1830 and fell deeply in love with the place, with the stark and tragic rituals of the bullring and the even more cruel facts of life among the gypsies and thieves. Carmen, the short novel he wrote after his trip (it was eventually published in 1845), kept Mérimée's essential viewpoint‹that of an outsider‹as his narrator is told the tale of the condemned soldier Don José and his murdered gypsy lover. It is the eve of José's execution, and the action of the novel is a young man's rush of memories of an impossible yet unquenchable love.

José gave up everything for Carmen. He abandoned his loving fiancée, deserted from the army, and became a smuggler, a thief, and eventually a killer‹all for the love of a ravishing gypsy who quickly tired of her young officer and left him for a bullfighter. José wanted Carmen to love him forever, which she could not do.

"You ask the impossible of me," she tells him in Mérimée's original. "I no longer love you. You… you still love me. And that is why you want to kill me. I could tell you some lie, but I don't think it would be worth it. Everything is finished between us. As my man, you have the right to kill your woman. Fine. But Carmen will always be free. She was born free, and she will die free."

The heartbreaking belief that freedom is more important than life itself is at the center of Carmen's choices. Bizet, in his opera, took our attentions away from Don José and put the spotlight on Carmen herself, on the tragic dialectic of fatalism and strength at the heart of his enigmatic, immortal creation.

"I always thought that you would kill me," Carmen tells Don José near the novel's bloody climax. "It is written." Bizet's opera leaves out that fatalistic declaration but lets the music explore the same questions. Could Carmen have avoided her fate? Would she have done anything different and still be free? In the opera, as in life, freedom is everything, but it is everything only within life's often brutal limits. The situation is far from easy, and it is Bizet's genius to allow the chiaroscuro of life and death to ring true onstage. Each singer who plays Carmen must make her own dramatic and musical choices, must give us, perhaps, another clue into who this woman really is. Into why she could not have been otherwise.

To the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the character of Carmen not only rang true but also was, in fact, the embodiment of truth as woman. Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac's opera libretto somewhat dilutes the more shocking traits of Mérimée's man-eating, heavy-smoking, drop-dead-gorgeous gypsy heroine; but Bizet's music softens her character not at all. The American composer Ned Rorem famously ruled Carmen's death a suicide and it is the music and not the words that always will side with his view. Carmen is free, defiantly so in her day but also ineffably, utterly free by any period or standard. She chooses to live and love in her own way. It is Carmen's choices and no one else's‹make no mistake‹that seal her fate.

The tale is in the music. In Bizet's opera, the five-note Fate motif is not subtle. It bursts onto the main body of the composer's delicious, deceptively triumphant Prelude to Act I with the abrupt brutality of life's worst turns: a chromatic bit of tone-painting of Fauvist intensity, its diminished seventh atmosphere unmistakably tragic. True, the score only takes off from there. And what follows is rich. It is safe to say that millions who have never been in an opera house can recognize much of Carmen within a few notes. Millions more who love opera will only experience their love grow with every new interpretation, with every chance to witness new facets of the title character's perennially surprising character.

Too realistic by half, particularly for the Opéra Comique's conservative Parisian audiences in 1875, Bizet's masterpiece succeeds as an embarrassment of musical riches. The "Habanera" is based on a popular Cuban rhythm that not only brought sensual new hues to Spanish music itself but also later gave birth to such 20th-century dance movements as the Cuban son and the Argentinean tango and milonga. The "Toreador's Song" is that rarity, a crowd pleaser that actually pleases, as well as serving as a surprising foil for one of life's nastier turns: first suggested in the "Prelude," and ultimately realized outside the bullring in Act Four. The "Seguidilla" not so much mirrors as foreshadows major strains of flamenco music and dance that smolder on the world's stages to this day. Carmen's teasing insistence to Don José that "I sing for myself, I sing for myself" only makes her seduction of the young officer seem that much more natural. Natural, too, is how Carmen moves on to her next love, dropping the old one without a thought. That is who she is. That is her fate.

Over the years, Carmen's tale has been shown to have legs. The great Marius Petipa, before setting off to make ballet history in St. Petersburg, was inspired by Mérimée to choreograph Carmen and her Torero in Paris in 1845, 30 years before Bizet' s opera. It was the opera, however, that without a doubt made Mérimée's gypsy immortal and also led to the creation of at least two major ballets. Roland Petit's Carmen, created for his wife Zizi Jeanmaire in 1949, announced the rebirth of French dance after the war and recaptured the elusive Gallic irony of Mérimée's original. The greatest of all Carmen ballets, it remains the epitome of sensuality and jazzy abandon that drench the work of Petit to this day. Alberto Alonso's 1967 Bolshoi Carmen, set to a whimsical musical adaptation of Bizet by Rodion Shchedrin, streamlined the plot with tragic simplicity and became a stunning vehicle for Maya Plisetskaya and Alicia Alonso in the resplendent Indian summers of their respective careers. There have been other dance treatments, from Carlos Saura's enduring flamenco version to Mats Ek's smoke-filled Carmen that puts the narrative emphasis back where Mérimée first thought it belonged: on Don José's downfall.

But it has been at the movies that the tale of Carmen has risen to the opera's multi-layered tragic dimension. Not in Cecil B. de Mille's silent 1915 adaptation, where the great diva Geraldine Farrar perversely found herself playing the gyspy in a silent picture. Certainly not in Charles Vidor's lighthearted 1948 The Loves of Carmen starring Rita Hayworth, nor in the disarmingly vulgar 1954 Carmen Jones or in Peter Brook's dumbed-down 1984 Tragedie de Carmen. Radley Metzger, who rather successfully modernized Verdi's La traviata as the mod and fabulous 1969 cult hit Camille 2000, had a go at the story and scored a hit with Carmen Baby in 1966. But it was Jean-Luc Godard who, paradoxically, abandoned Bizet's music altogether and came closest to envisioning on film the human paradox that is Carmen.

Godard's 1983 Prenom Carmen (First Name: Carmen) took bits of the Carmen plot and threw them at the director's political autobiography. It is a breathtakingly personal film, violent and disjointed in narrative style but above all in its use of music: Beethoven's, not Bizet's, in bleeding chunks of sound that assault the audience like a sudden burst of rain. The effect is a subtle homage to Bizet's most unsubtle use of the Fate motif. Without quoting a note of the opera, Godard alludes to the senselessness and inevitability of life's abrupt key moments. It alludes to a character who can't help the facts of her own life but will ferociously defend her freedom to live that life. It is a jagged, shocking portrayal that rings true. It is almost like Bizet's immortal Carmen.

Octavio Roca, who wrote Scotto: More Than a Diva, has been a music, dance, and theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and other publications. He teaches philosophy at the University of Miami.

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