Sunday, August 3, 2008


L'amour est enfant de Bohême,
il n'a jamais, jamais connu de loi,

si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime,
si je t'aime, prends garde à toi!

Love is a gypsy child,
it has never, ever, known law;
if you love me not, then I love you;
if I love you, you'd best beware!
~from the "Habanera" of Bizet's Carmen

One of most popular operas of all time, Carmen by Georges Bizet is practically a cliché, so deeply have its tunes permeated the general culture. Based upon the novella of Prosper Mérimée, Carmen debuted in 1875 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. It was considered highly scandalous at the time and was met with a less than than favorable response. However, Carmen slowly gained in popularity following Bizet's death. According to Daniel Pardo of Opera Today:

Bizet's Carmen paved the way for the "verismo" movement in opera.1 In Carmen, Bizet was the first to strip the sugarcoated varnish off the story and expose people's emotions at their most basic level. Disregarding convention and the effect on the public, Bizet took people from the lower echelons of society and made them the protagonists.2

The story of the opera is well-known, as is the music, running the full gamut of human emotion. Carmen the Gypsy seduces the young officer Don José away from his career and his intended bride, Micaela. She leads him into a life of crime and then abandons him for the matador, Escamillo. Don José, a broken man, stalks and murders Carmen.

Many now would probably celebrate Carmen as a liberated woman, in charge of her own destiny and sexuality. Indeed, Carmen's passionate and wild behavior makes sweet and pious Micaela seem boring and pallid. There is never any doubt in anyone's mind which woman José will choose. Yet Carmen is the kind of person who thoughtlessly wreaks havoc with other people's lives; she is a destructive force, a natural disaster.

At the end it is clear that Micaela's gentle but encompassing love was an actual grace for José, one which he chose to ignore. For Carmen, love is mere sport, which she enjoys almost as much as watching a bullfight. It is a game for her, like cards. However, Bizet makes it startlingly evident that playing with other people's minds and hearts can have dire and brutal consequences. Micaela's genuine love bathes the other characters with hope of redemption, without which Carmen would be one long dance into hell.

Music with Ease gives the following summary:

Such, then, is "Carmen" -- a work containing a world of beauties; marked by brilliant orchestration, by a unique use of Spanish rhythms, by finished musicianship displayed on every page of the score. The plot gave the composer strong situations, effective contrasts, excellent chances for local colouring, and he took full advantage of his opportunities. "I consider 'Carmen' a chef-d'oeuvre in the fullest sense of the word," wrote Tschaikowsky -- "one of those rare compositions which seems to reflect most strongly in itself the musical tendencies of a whole generation... I am convinced that ten years hence (he was writing in 1880) it will be the most popular opera in the world." The prophecy has come quite nearly, if not actually true.