Bizet and Carmen

Much of the career of Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was spent as an arranger or orchestrator of scores and as a rehearsal pianist for a number of theatres in Paris during his lifetime. This meant that he came to know the operatic repertoire inside and out, and he was a man of the theatre as well as a musician. As an opera composer, however, he wasn’t terribly successful until his opera The Pearl Fishers was commissioned by the Theatre Lyrique in 1863. It had a respectable 18 performances and was well thought of by many of his contemporaries, but it was never revived in his lifetime. Not long afterwards, in 1867, another of his operas, The Fair Maid of Perth, was presented at the Lyrique, again had 18 performances and again disappeared from sight. Many other works exist in fragments, never quite making it to the stage. In 1871 he was finally offered a commission by the Opéra Comique for a one-act oriental fantasy entitled Djalimeh. Although it did not do well, the Comique decided to take a chance on offering him a three-act commission. As was common for the period, they hired the librettists and left the creators on their own to choose a subject.

It was Bizet himself who presented the striking and original idea of setting Carmen as an opera. The Mérimée novella had been originally published in 1845 and it caused something of a scandal with all its gypsy passion, Spanish color and fleshed-out characters. The Comique’s chosen librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, were old hands at opera theatre work. They had both provided excellent librettos for Jacques Offenbach. And although they were initially scandalized by Bizet’s choice, they eventually came around. After all, it gave them the opportunity to write something quite different from what they had been used to. But it was the directors of the theatre, Camille Du Locle and Adolphe de Leuven who feared for the audiences’ reaction. In fact, de Leuven, the more old-fashioned of the two directors, was so incensed with even the possibility of Carmen being produced by the Comique that he resigned from the company. Here is De Leuven’s reaction on hearing of the composer’s choice:

Isn’t she killed by her lover? And that background of thieves, gypsies, cigar-makers!—At the Opera-Comique, a family theatre! The theatre where marriages are arranged! Every night five or six boxes are taken for that purpose. You will frighten off our audience. It’s impossible!

Du Locle was much more progressive and he allowed the production of Carmen to go forward, but not without reservations, begging Bizet and his collaborators to tone down some of the more salacious aspects of the story. (Du Locle was also a sometime collaborator with Verdi, completing the French version of the libretto of Don Carlo and providing the original scenario for the opera Aïda.)

Carmen was completed by the summer of 1874 and in September a five-month rehearsal process began. The lengthy preparation period was certainly needed because of revisions which were constantly being demanded by the theatre. The chorus and the orchestra caused considerable problems themselves. At the Comique the chorus usually stood in one spot during an opera with their eyes fixed on the conductor. They were finding it impossible to do what the composer demanded: that they actually be involved in the action of the plot. They had never been challenged to act and nearly rebelled at having to move and sing at the same time. For their part, the orchestra refused to play certain passages which they thought to be utterly unplayable. The principal singers weren’t much better, but the first Carmen, Marie Galli-Marié, believed whole-heartedly in the work and in the composer; with her encouragement and support, the piece made it through the grueling rehearsal process and had its first performance on March 3, 1875.

In the audience that night were the most important musicians in Paris at the time: Massenet, Offenbach, Delibes, Thomas and Gounod. The first act was well received but by the time the sexy gypsy was stabbed by her former lover Don José on a street outside the bull ring at the end of the opera, the audience’s enthusiasm had waned. They were completely bewildered, shocked and uncomprehending of what they had seen on stage. They were also stunned by what they heard musically between the pages of spoken dialogue which had always been a hallmark of Opera Comique productions. According to one of the opening night critics:

It is a delirium of castanets, of provocative hip-swinging, of knife stabs gallantly distributed among both sexes; of cigarettes roasted by the ladies; of St. Vitus dances, smutty rather than sensuous. The pathological condition of this unfortunate woman more likely to inspire the solicitude of physicians than to interest the decent spectators who come to the Opera Comique accompanied by their wives and daughters…At the Comique, a subsidized theatre, a decent theatre if ever there was one, Mlle. Carmen should temper her passions!

Audiences from the second night onwards were much kinder, but the damage had been done. Although the opera had a 48 performance run, most of the audiences were papered or ‘comped’; they did not pay for their tickets. Bizet died three months later of a heart attack, in June of 1875, brought on by a debilitating throat condition. He was 36 years old and thought his masterpiece to be a complete failure. A few months later the opera was produced in Vienna. A student of Bizet, Ernest Guiraud, provided sung accompanied recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue, and Carmen was reborn as grand, tragic opera. It hasn’t left the active repertoire since.

The Music of Carmen

Georges Bizet worked in opera theatres during much of his career, mostly as a rehearsal pianist. And prior to the composition of Carmen, he wrote some truly charming music, some salon music, a little symphonic music, and some incidental music for the theatre. He also wrote some operas, many of which were stillborn at birth, others of which remained incomplete. None of these works gives us any inkling of the volcanic explosion of ideas that is the score of the four-act Carmen. The choice of subject is in itself quite telling. In setting the potentially scandalous novella by Prosper Mérimée to music for the staid, family-friendly Opéra Comique, he was thumbing his nose at the social class that supported the very art within which he tried to make his living. So rabidly counter to the traditional fare of audiences that traveled to the Salle Favart was this opera, it couldn’t have been a mistake or a miscalculation. This was virtual artistic suicide, premeditated and fully committed. The music provoked rebellion amongst the orchestral players and chorus members, ignited a furor in the administration of the opera house resulting in the resignation of one of its directors, and scandalized a perplexed audience. The composer died feeling that the work was a complete failure, a tragic irony heightened by the fact that within months of his demise the work was well on its way to being hailed as one of the greatest operas ever written.

Surely one reason for the shock felt by the Carmen’s first audiences is the sheer intimacy of the Salle Favart, then a medium-sized theatre (at least by American standards) of fewer than 2,000 seats with a ‘live’ acoustic. In such close quarters the explosive energy of the overture, the sultry nature of Carmen’s seduction of Don Jose, and the violence of her murder at the climax of the opera must have stunned the polite bourgeois Parisian audience. (Even today, in the third theatre to accommodate the Comique, the capacity is relatively small at 1,500). The shock value has certainly been overcome with time and endless production of the opera throughout the world, but the essential theatrical effect remains: Carmen is an opera that brilliantly interconnects plot and subplot with music that communicates an amazing array of the emotions and psychological states of the characters. And it does this at times subtly, and at other times with the blatancy of a velvet-covered hammer.

The opera is brilliantly orchestrated, of course, the composer taking advantage of every timbre at his disposal. The use of the wind instruments to add flashes of color and the brass to add a burnished quality to the bullfighting references brings the story to memorable life. Cymbals, tambourines and castanets add to the Spanish, martial flavor of many important passages. In many ways, it is a typical mid-19th century French orchestration, not dissimilar to the scores of Offenbach and early Massenet. But it is Bizet’s treatment of the orchestra as an equal member of the operatic ‘team’ that is striking in the context of 1875. Why? Because the orchestra seems to always have the role of playing ‘below the surface’. Note how practically every solo moment for the character Carmen is accompanied by a dance rhythm, with the notable exception of the Act III ‘card’ aria, “En vain pour éviter les réponses amères”. The habanera, the seguidilla, the castanet-accompanied Spanish song in the duet with Jose, the gypsy song at the beginning of Act II all conspire to give us a total picture of this person. The dances identify her as a free spirit, a lover, an actor, above all a woman who follows her senses beyond all else and who will never be contained by societal, religious or moral strictures. The music therefore communicates the essence of Carmen, just as the pretty, elegant lines of Micaëla’s music projects her maidenly, village girl persona and the lusty lilt of Escamillo’s Toreador Song portrays his dionysiac, erotic nature.

Don Jose’s music is of a different quality and is the more remarkable achievement. Bizet’s music for Jose is sweet and lyrical in Act I especially in his duet with Micaëla, “Parle moi de ma mere”, perfectly matching the relative innocence and naïve quality that he exhibits at that point. As Jose deteriorates psychologically, so does his music; by Act III, his vocal lines have become angular, dissonant, even disjointed. He is no longer the same person and his music brilliantly reflects that. The characters in the opera whose music changes very little are, of course, Escamillo and Micaëla. Micaëla is a stock character from the opera-comique tradition, a peasant girl from the country with a sensitive spirit but traditionally bound to the moral codes of the village structure, society as she knew it, the church. Her music never evolves from the lyrical nature of the Act I duet; in the Act III aria “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante” we meet exactly the same character we met at the beginning of the opera. She hasn’t grown, but then she doesn’t really need to. Escamillo is also a somewhat pivotal, unchanging character. His Toreador Song is lusty, self-confident, alluring, and his music constantly reflects these traits. His only moment of tenderness is the brief duet with Carmen in Act IV, “Si tu m’aimes”. This also happens to include Carmen’s one moment of unison singing with another character, signaling her complete unanimity with the bullfighter, something she never experiences with Don Jose.

Bizet’s musical characterization reminds one of the operas of Mozart, in which we see a style or type of music (and at times even an entire musical world) given to the characters in order to propel the dramatic action. It is in this accomplishment that Bizet has been most successful and remains the most important factor in the centrality of Carmen in the standard repertoire.

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