The surgeon general has determined that working in a cigarette factory in early nineteenth century Spain is hazardous to your health.
Misogynist rant? Most popular opera ever?
Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame. So croons the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. Did you know that Bizet basically lifted the “Habanera” from an 1840 song “El arreglito” by Sebastián de Yradier, who introduced the genre to France?
Prosper Mérimée’s (1803-1870) short novel Carmen first appeared as a serial in the Revue des deux mondes in 1845, and was published as a book in 1847. It is told as a “frame” story, after all the action is over, by a narrator who encounters Don José long after he killed Carmen, served time, and is now an itinerant vagrant living hand to mouth. But these situations don’t lend themselves to dramatic retelling, nor do the philosophical digressions inserted by Mérimée.
By now, dear readers, you’re probably getting the hang of this opera-from-novels thing. The librettist(s), Meilhac and Halévy, really deserve a lot of credit for tightening and focusing the story on those dramatic elements that are best served by music. They even “invented” the character of Micaëla, who is unnamed in the novel. “Opera’s loveable doormat” is what I like to call her (Liú, from Puccini’s Turandot is another), always the self-sacrificing girlfriend.
Based on a very similar earlier poem by Pushkin (The Gypsies, 1824), the story contains all that is stereotypical about the “exotic other” as viewed by western European males. She is independent, sexually voracious, threatening, vaguely (or overtly) criminal, and usually a mezzo-soprano. (The more “manly” of the female voice categories. High coloratura soprano simply won’t do.) Gypsies (particularly the women) were seen in Europe as “often of a very charming appearance in their younger years, yet are also, as a rule, wanton and cunning paramours.”
It would be easy, but also facile, to reduce the message to one of mere woman-hating, particularly if one reads the original epigram found at the beginning of the novel (but not contained in the opera). That is: “Every woman is like bile; but she has two good times, one in bed, the other at her death.” This is attributed to “Palladas,” a convenient way for Mérimée to distance himself from his own attitudes. Palladas was a fourth-century AD pagan Greek poet, residing in Christian Alexandria, Egypt. Apparently, he was bitter about his marriage. All that survives of his work is a series of epigrams (one- or two-line pithy sayings).
I suppose another way of looking at it is that men have so little control over their appetites and jealousies that they unleash their worst impulses, but even that is controlled by the temptress: woman, vessel of evil, the old “Eve” narrative.
The opera premiered on 3 March 1875 at Paris’ Opéra-Comique, in its original version with spoken dialogue. A majority of hostile reviews ensued. Bizet was awarded the Légion d’Honneur the same day as the premiere, but he died just three months later, aged 36, believing Carmen was a failure. If he had only stuck around just a little longer. A Vienna production later in 1875 was a huge hit (the opera was Brahms’ favorite, as well as Tchaikovsky’s), and the sultry seductress was off and running worldwide thereafter. The opera was “refitted” with grand-opera composed recitatives (of mediocre quality) for the Vienna presentation and the Paris Opera. Today, more producers are returning to the original.
Over 50 movie versions of the Carmen story have been made, including the 1954 Otto Preminger film “Carmen Jones,” adapted in 1943 by Oscar Hammerstein II, starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, and Pearl Bailey!
One of my favorite books, in French and sadly out of print, is by the noted conductor Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht. It is titled “Comment on ne doit pas chanter Carmen, Faust, Pelléas.” (How One Should Not Sing . . . published in 1933.) In the book, he humbly goes directly to the score (so radical!) and really insists that the composers’ markings be followed simply, accurately, and without distortion. This approach is so rare, as anyone who has heard virtually any recent Carmen can attest.
Finally, “menthol” Carmen is even more hazardous than regular, so please either quit or cut back.
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs