Portraits of Passion and Power

Classic Arts Features   Portraits of Passion and Power
Cynthia Greenwood surveys the classic heroines of Carmen, which opens on April 15 at Houston Grand Opera, and The Coronation of Poppea, which opens there April 29.

Bizet's Carmen, set in 19th-century Seville, is a far stylistic cry from The Coronation of Poppea, Monteverdi's baroque classic about immoral ancient Romans. Bizet's lively musical concoction about a sexually liberated factory worker blends cabaret melody and flamenco dance with spoken dialogue and a vivacious chorus. By contrast, The Coronation of Poppea is a precursor to today's form of grand opera, and premiered before the Venetian public in 1643. Monteverdi's work satirizes the corrupt community surrounding Roman emperor Nero and exposes the doings behind his illicit affair with Poppea. Ironically, the couple's indecent intimacy makes for some of opera's most exquisite love duets. Poppea's score is rich in arias, ensembles, and distinctive baroque string accompaniment, but like Carmen, it was conceived to provoke and entertain.

Both Carmen and Poppea appear to be femmes fatales whose morally questionable actions cause suffering and destruction. To be sure, both are powerful, willful, and inconstant. But the secret of their feminine power and influence is easily apprehended through their musical portraits.

Carmen is often stereotyped as a brazen, impetuous gypsy who ensnares the vulnerable Don José, only to ditch him for a handsome bullfighter. An examination of her alluring solos and set pieces reveals a more complex creature, however. Reminiscent of the fiery title character in Prosper Mérimée's novella, Carmen's enterprising and resourceful nature offsets her promiscuous and underhanded ways. In particular, Mérimée portrays her as a valiant, self-possessed woman who loves her freedom above all, a creature who refuses to become subservient to any man. Likewise, Bizet's Carmen essentially controls her own fate by dominating those around her. In keeping with the novella, she is something of a rhetorical and musical virtuoso, suggests Susan McClary, who is well known for her work combining feminism and musicology. Carmen's gift lies in her unusual ability to emulate others' musical styles, even when she makes lively talk with the smugglers.

In the "Seguidilla" toward the end of Act I, Carmen makes her voice sound like Don José; by speaking his language, she is able to seduce him. Though much of her power and commanding presence comes from her willingness to be sexually available, her insistence on being a free woman takes courage and a measure of integrity. In abandoning Don José for Escamillo, Carmen refuses to be possessed. Eventually, to have her for himself, Don José must destroy her.

Poppea, according to ancient historical accounts by Tacitus and Seutonius, was a ruthless, opportunistic noblewoman who in A.D. 64 became romantically entangled with Emperor Nero‹or Nerone, as he is known in the opera‹for the purpose of wresting the crown from his wife Ottavia. By itself, this characterization gives short shrift to one of Monteverdi's most sublime creations for the soprano voice. After the opening prologue, in which the allegorical figures of Fortune, Virtue, and Love argue over who exercises the most influence over the fate of men, Cupid (Love) asserts that he is master of the world, foreshadowing triumph for the illicit lovers, Nerone and Poppea. In Act II, after Poppea rejoices over the news that Seneca, the philosopher she wants Nerone to be rid of, is actually dead, she beseeches Cupid for support. Throughout the opera, Cupid's primacy within her imagination rivals that of Fortune, which is unusual, since the ancients regarded Fortune as the force that unpredictably determined events for good or ill.

As Nerone's lover, Poppea comes alive in a series of four elegant duets. In the first of these duets, she needles him and insists on having him to herself. Without seeming possessive or overbearing, she beseeches him in florid singing, deftly alternating between firm beckoning when they must part and subtle duplicity as she encourages him to banish Ottavia.

Carmen and The Coronation of Poppea are seminal works in the history of opera's evolution. The palpable attraction that modern audiences feel for the Spanish cigarette girl and the ambitious Roman noblewoman stems from the universal, centuries-old appeal of their love stories.

Poppea, considered the finest early opera in the repertory of the modern opera stage, probably grew out of a close collaboration among Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli, and others, as well as librettist Giovanni Francesco Busenello. Busenello, who had more influence over the musical production than he would have had today, settled on a popular, historically accurate tale of Nero's love affair to please paying patrons of Venice's burgeoning new art form, which, prior to the staging of Poppea, had served exclusively as private entertainment for aristocrats and members of the court. In early17th-century Venice, mounting an opera based on historical incident rather than classical mythology was unheard of.

The Venetian audience's appreciation of musical tales based on real human emotion and conflict is strikingly similar to our modern taste for salacious love stories laced with scandal and controversy. How different are Poppea's wily machinations from those we read about in our daily newspapers? The tale of a voluptuous, high-born Roman who casts off her feckless husband, lures the emperor of Rome to marry her and banish his wife, though immoral, is distinctly modern.

Bizet's Carmen, which Tchaikovsky felt was "destined to reflect most strongly the musical aspirations of an entire epoch," flouted the musical style and typical moral concerns of the Opéra-Comique in Paris. When it premiered in 1875, the French press hated it. The management of the Opéra-Comique thought it unsuitable for loyal patrons who brought their children to the theater.

In producing Carmen, Bizet deliberately undermined the norms of a theater that catered to the tastes of the bourgeoisie. Early French audiences were undoubtedly influenced by the hostility of the French press toward Carmen, but outside France, and particularly in Vienna, composers and listeners delighted in the young composer's renegade music making. Both Wagner and Nietzche lauded his pretty music and exotic musical sensibilities.

Although today's popular images of Carmen and Poppea rest mainly on their notoriety, both roles embody exceptionally vivid musical portraits, which explains the enduring appeal of both operas.

Cynthia Greenwood, a fine arts journalist and critic, has written about opera and stagecraft for the New York Times, the Handbook of Texas Online, Opera Cues, Andante, and Houston Press, among others.

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