Dec 19, 2019

The Music of Carmen

Georges Bizet worked in opera theatres during much of his career, mostly as a rehearsal pianist. 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 and others 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 José, and the violence of her murder at the climax of the opera must have stunned the polite bourgeois Parisian audience. The shock value has certainly been overcome with time and endless productions 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 José, and 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, and 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 wild, erotic nature.

Don José’s music is of a different quality and is the more remarkable achievement. Bizet’s music for José 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 José 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 José.

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.


Courtesy of San Diego Opera


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