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Opera Gold – Carmen (2007)

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Programme notes

Music Georges Bizet (France, 1838-75)
Libretto Henri Meilhac (France, 1831-97) and Ludovic Halévy (France, 1834-1908)
Based on Part II of the 1845 novella in four parts by Prosper Mérimée (France, 1803-70)
Premiere Opéra-Comique, Paris, 3 March 1875
Setting Seville, Spain, in the mid-1800s

Plot on a postcard Carmen is a beautiful but wayward gypsy girl who works at a cigarette factory. She seduces Don Jose, a soldier garrisoned in Seville. He lets her escape jail and ends up in prison himself. But when he hesitates to join in her circle of smuggling friends, she splits with him in favour of Escamillo, a star bullfighter. Furious with jealousy, Jose stabs Carmen while Escamillo is winning a bullfight.
Other characters Frasquita and Mercedes, friends of Carmen; Zuniga and Morales, pompous officers; Dancairo and Remendado, smugglers; Lillas Pastia, innkeeper; Micaela, sweet childhood friend of Don Jose.
Most famous bits The dashing Prelude; Carmen's sultry Habañera in Act I; Escamillo's Toreador's Song in Act II.

Mention Carmen to most people and they'll break into a smile. There's something attractive and friendly about an opera in which you recognise every tune, and which you probably first heard in a cosy spoof version on the Two Ronnies or an advert for chocolate. The vaguely recalled spectacle of a half-ton middle-aged mezzo pretending to be a teenage siren probably raises a grin too.

Such familiarity shouldn't mislead us into contempt, however, as it did with Carmen for any man who got close enough to light her a cigarette. Mid-1800s Seville is a place of blood, lust, revenge and murder, and the fast money generated by the new cigarette factory is disappearing into a black economy of arms smuggling. It may sometimes seem nice music, but it's not a nice place, and they're not nice people. (In Mérimée's original, the characters are even nastier: Don Jose has already murdered a man, Carmen dabbles in the occult, and she has a violently abusive husband.)

Bizet's fate wasn't very nice either. A nearly man all his professional life, he was mainly thought of in Paris as a fine sight-reading pianist. His opera work had been patchy and box-office failure. And when he died just three months after Carmen's premiere - probably of heart failure in every sense - that had proved a flop, too, with half-empty houses and sneering reviews.

What put off those early Paris audiences? Mainly, the character of Carmen, and the sewer-life tone of the whole drama. Now we're familiar with such things: Carmen today would be a Hello!-seeking reality-show celeb, a serial WAG, a self-destructing pop diva. Bourgeois Parisians, sat in their family boxes at the Opéra-Comique, found such images of women distasteful.

At the premiere, Act I had curtain calls; Escamillo's entrance drew wild applause. But things cooled: the tutting started in Act III, and by Act IV there was a frigid silence. Having decided they didn't like the characters, most critics decided they therefore didn't like the music. It was too Wagnerian. Or it was too anti-Wagnerian. Or it fell between two stools, being only partially Wagnerian.

Then, four months after that, a Vienna performance proved a massive hit; similar success followed in St Petersburg, New York and Naples. Carmen quickly became that rare thing, a hummable popular success that still has great musical depth.

Those depths often reveal some surprises. Take, instance, the famous Habañera, Carmen's erotic declaration of sexual freedom. Confusingly, Bizet didn't exactly write the music. He thought he'd based the tune on a remembered folksong; in fact, it came from a published work by a popular composer called Yradier.

But a comparison of Yradier's plodding, mechanical middle section, compared to Bizet's richer, more varied reworking, shows a difference in class. Equally confusingly, Bizet did write the Habañera's words, showing the talent of a songwriter rather than a poet, but an effective one.

And that raises the question of how 'Spanish' Carmen is. Not much, is the basic answer. The Habañera, for example, is a Cuban dance, rooted in sensuous African rhythmical aesthetics, re-imported to Spain by Yradier. Bizet cheerfully admitted that he'd never been to Spain and that to study Iberian folk forms would only have put him off. Sure, there's a few castanets here, and some lively rhythmic energy there, and a hint of 'flamenco' somewhere else, but this music is more France than Spain, and more Bizet than Andalusia.

Superficially Spanish it may be, but there's nothing superficial about the music. At long last, Bizet achieved a musical consistency of quality that his earlier works lacked (The Pearl Fishers, for example: fabulous duet, but who could recognise any of the rest of it?) Indeed, Bizet's obvious-sounding tunes aren't quite as easy to sing in the shower, when Bizet's side-stepping French chromaticism may well lead you astray from where you thought the home note was.

And Bizet could subtly subvert form for dramatic purposes: Don Jose and Carmen have three 'love duets', representing the three stages of their relationship, in Act I (seduction), II (conflict) and IV (finality). Yet they hardly every sing at the same time 'as they should': a strong demonstration of their incompatibility, their separate worlds.

Carmen's influence has been wide and far-reaching, often in unexpected places. In 1933, Shostakovich was in love with a young student, Yelena Konstantinovskaya. She was sent to a gulag; afterwards she emigrated to Spain and married a certain Roman Carmen. Confronting his suicidal despair in the way composers do, Shostakovich secreted Carmen references, notably to the Habañera, into his Fifth Symphony of 1937.

The fate of Carmen herself - signified in the opera by that ominous descending string motif - is always on the cards, of course. Literally. She can see that when she and her friends read their fortunes in Act III. They dream of marriage and comfort; Carmen sees only death. What might Bizet have gone on to write, had he lived beyond 36? But perhaps his fate was on the cards too.

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