Written by: Alexander Campbell
The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.
Who wrote it?
Carmen is the most famous of the operas written by Frenchman Georges Bizet (1838-75). It was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875. It was not well received, partly because it deviated from the standard Opéra-Comique format of the day, but also because the subject-matter and the heroine were considered immoral. Furthermore, rehearsals had been plagued by threatened strikes from the chorus and the orchestra.
The audience of the time was generally conservative and bourgeois and so the hostile reaction was perhaps not unexpected. Carmen the opera (based on a then all-the-rage novella by Prosper Mérimée) then conquered the world rapidly – although, sadly, by then Bizet was already dead, just three months after the disastrous first night, and he died believing Carmen was a failure. It has remained a cornerstone of the repertoire in every house ever since and remains wildly popular.
Carmen still occasionally causes controversy though – recently an opera-house of repute shelved further revivals of its much-loved production feeling that the depiction of women smoking was no longer politically acceptable. Much the same was thought in 1875!
What’s it all about?
The action takes place in and around Seville. In Act One a young army Captain, Don José, is at his sentry point near a cigarette factory. He encounters the carefree yet dangerously seductive gypsy girl Carmen, who taunts him for ignoring her. Later she attacks a work colleague, is arrested and entrusted to Don José’s security. She persuades him to aid her escape. For that conspiracy he is imprisoned and also demoted.
In Act Two Carmen and friends are working with a group of smugglers. The toreador Escamillo swaggers into the tavern and his eye alights on Carmen, who though attracted to him, is waiting for her reconciliation with the now-freed Don José.
The reunion does not go well. Don José then misses his call-back to barracks and becomes embroiled in the smugglers’ plans. His love for Carmen has destroyed his military career and he becomes an outlaw. Inevitably, Carmen and Don José tire of one another; he is obsessive and controlling and she feels constrained and, anyway, she has secretly switched her affections to Escamillo.
Micaëla, a girl from Don José’s village, and his one-time intended, finds him to bring news that his mother is dying. This enforces a separation between Carmen and Don José … for the time being.
The final dramatic scene occurs before a bullfight in Seville. Carmen is feted as Escamillo’s new love. Don José, now uncontrollably jealous and desperate, emerges from the crowd and bars Carmen’s way. She asserts her right to sexual freedom … with fatal consequences.
Look out for…
Bizet had amazing melodic invention and introduces much exoticism and even eroticism into his score. The swashbuckling orchestral Prelude includes the ‘fate’ motif that pervades the opera.
All the major characters have famous arias. Carmen explains her philosophy of life in “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” in Act One, then seduces Don José in the dreamy “Prés des ramparts de Séville”. She also has an intense fatalistic moment in Act Three as she predicts her grim fortune through a pack of cards. Don José’s most well-known turn is the ‘Flower Song’, where he pours out his love and devotion to Carmen – a marvellously intense number that should culminate in a softly voiced high phrase.
Escamillo is there for macho swagger. The ‘Toreador Song’ of Act Two delineates his character immediately. The female counterpoint to Carmen, Micaëla, brings inner strength and honest moral compass to the fore in a reflective Act Three aria. Add great moments for the chorus and some highly dramatic duets and ensembles that propel the action forward and you know why Carmen has been a sure-fire hit for many decades.
The title-role is usually sung by mezzo-sopranos, though sopranos and contraltos have taken the part. Dramatically, it needs a singer who can really act, for Carmen is a complex woman and many facets of her nature can be teased out. Is she flighty or predatory? Knowing, manipulative or innocent?
Don José is also a character of depth – is he weak-willed or psychotic? The vocal opportunities for the tenor are similarly myriad. If Escamillo is more a stock character he must have a handsome stage presence and a virile baritone voice. Likewise Micaëla needs to provide vocal contrast to Carmen.
Who’s in it?
Carmen is sung by the Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili. She’s a striking, big-voiced mezzo who has made the role of the seductive gypsy something of a calling-card. Expect sparks! Don José is Aleksandrs Antonenko, a Russian tenor who has had a meteoric rise to his career – and is now singing the really strenuous Italian repertoire in particular. Escamillo is to be portrayed by the Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov – he sang Figaro in the recent Met transmission of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Anita Hartig, a young soprano from Romania, sings the upright Micaëla.
The production is directed by the experienced Richard Eyre. Conducting is Pablo Heras-Casado who, as a native of the country where the opera is set, will surely bring out the score’s Spanish flavours aided and abetted by the magnificent Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
When’s it on?
Saturday November 1. If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at the Met itself, otherwise it is internationally cinematic – from 4.55 p.m. in the UK, an hour earlier than usual.