In preparation for discussing Carmen during my "Opera insights" talk one hour prior to each of our performances Friday and Sunday, here's a notebook essay on some of the archetypal resonance of the opera and why it's still relevant.
The great Hungarian conductor Georg Solti called Bizet an “authentic genius,” a composer who “could paint a scene brilliantly with a few masterly strokes.”
The eminent director Peter Hall called Carmen, “the greatest musical ever written in dramatic terms.”
Solti’s Memoirs quotes Nietzsche’s take on Bizet (from the philosopher’s later anti-Wagnerian writings). Here is an extended version of the passage:
This music appears perfect to me. It approaches lightly, flexibly…"That which is good is light, everything divine walks on tender feet:” the first premise of my aesthetic. This music is vicious, refined, fatalistic: with it, it stays popular--it has the refinement of a race, not that of an individual. It is rich. It is precise. It builds, it organizes, accomplishes its goal… Has one ever heard more painful, tragic accents on stage? ... And how these are achieved! Without grimaces! Without counterfeiting! Without the lie of the grand style! Finally: This music takes the listener for an intelligent person, for a musician, himself…
To repeat it: I become a better man when Bizet speaks to me, also a better musician, a better listener. Can one even still listen better? I even bury my ears beneath this music. I hear its origin. It appears to me that I am experiencing its creation--I tremble in the face of dangers that accompany some kind of risks, I am delighted with happenstances that Bizet is innocent of... Has one noticed that music frees the mind? Lends wings to thoughts? That one becomes a philosopher all the more the more one becomes a musician? The grey sky of abstraction appears to be filled with lightning…the world from the vantage point of a mountaintop... Where am I? Bizet makes me fertile. Everything good makes me fertile. I have no other gratitude. I also have no other proof for that which is good…
(trans. by Ingrid Sabharwal-Schwaegermann)
Is Bizet singular among the “authentic geniuses” of music whose fame rests predominantly on the strength of one masterpiece? Carmen is it, and the only other major works from his tragically brief life are the early opera, The Pearl Fishers, two suites of incidental music for an adaptation of Daudet’s L’Arlesienne, and the Symphony in C.
On the underappreciated author of L’Arlesienne, Alphonse Daudet, Roberto Bolaño has penned a description that applies to Bizet’s gypsy smugglers. Reading Daudet, the late Chilean writer recalls “the happy sense of license that comes after a perfect theft and the feeling of freedom from smoking one’s first cigarettes…” (from Between Parentheses).
One of the “masterly strokes” Bizet painted was Carmen’s haunting “fate motif.” Nephew of Berlioz’s “idée fixe” and Wagner’s “Leitmotiv,” Bizet’s tune coils and winds like a deadly snake or a mysteriously powerful charm. It first appears in slow and foreboding form at the end of the otherwise ebullient prelude (where the popular tunes of the opera are introduced). It sounds with lightning quickness after Carmen bewitches Don José with her flower, sharp as a rose’s thorn. Its chromatic inflections link it to not only Romany Gypsy music, but to the Middle East, Asia and North Africa.
Such diverse origins underscore the enigmatic nature of not only Bizet’s theme; they point towards Carmen herself. Unity in diversity is one mark of an archetype, and one sign of Carmen’s enduring and near universal appeal. She is the “classical tragic protagonist,” Peter Conrad notes in his acclaimed study, A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera.
Conrad’s title refers to the Greek twinning of Eros and Thanatos (love and death), a pairing echoed in Nietzsche’s famous dialectic of Apollo and Dionysus. But one needn’t have a PhD to understand the philosophical relevance of these archetypal opposites.
I have quoted Dana Gioia and Robert Donington in essays about Carmen and opera itself. They both write perceptively about opera’s special intensity and its ability to evoke the classical catharsis of emotion; the vicarious experience we have of being moved and stirred by music and theatre. It is opera’s direct and expressively intense confrontation with archetypes that enables this affective response and it is one of the reasons opera fans are among the original “fanatics” of the theatre-going crowd.
Why are we so drawn to Carmen? Peter Conrad believes we are compelled by her fearless confrontation with danger and her refusal to compromise her individuality.
“Some of opera’s most psychologically thrilling moments are refusals to repent… Carmen won’t return to Don José when he unsheathes his knife… Such courting of danger is the energy of theatrical performance.”
Carmen is an enigma. An enigma is another ancient Greek concept exemplified in the riddle of the Sphinx. “What animal walks on one leg, two legs, and four legs?” ‘Man,’ was the infamous correct answer from the tragic hero Oedipus, whose fate it was to become the first human enigma.
“Carmen is a classical tragic protagonist,” Conrad writes. “Like Oedipus at the crossroads, when she turns over the cards, she faces consequence, destiny and death.” And it is this equation of facing consequences and embracing destiny and death after choosing a path at the crossroads that is vital to our understanding of the Oedipus myth. The Freudian psychosexual component associated with Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta is a symptom of an original sickness stretching back at least one generation. The “Oedipal complex” should not be reduced to the scandal of the incest taboo.
Modern audiences may perceive the Oedipal resonances in Carmen more easily in the character of the emotionally stunted tragic anti-hero, Don José. José is torn between duty to his mother (and her “good girl” proxy, Micaela) and the “bad girl” femme fatale, Carmen. He is torn between duty to his trade as a soldier and the life of freedom he desires with “his” gypsy. This split is an example of the Apollo / Dionysus conflict that is central to our experience of what it is to be human. The twin poles of intellect and emotion, reason and passion, light and dark, technique and inspiration are just a handful of the rippling manifestations of this dialectic.
The inability to recognize the split is one of the origins of neuroses, and the failure to confront any profound psychological problem often leads to tragedy. Every time a scorned lover abuses or kills his former girlfriend or ex-wife, the unchecked aggression of Don José has lashed out again with devastating consequences.
So the Freudian diagnoses should not be summarily discarded. Robert Donington observes, “Bizet married a second installment of his mother problem” (Opera & Its Symbols: The Unity of Words, Music & Staging). This is fascinating to consider in light of his tenor’s rapturously beautiful music. Like Bizet himself, José appears stuck. It is telling that his famous aria, the impassioned and nostalgic “flower song” is an obsessive reverie that can only circle back on itself in the muted key of D-flat. Carmen and Micaela both share the sunlight of G major. The “devil in music” interval of the diminished 5th (the tritone) separates his desperately imploring aria and Carmen’s direct – if manipulative – challenge: “No, you don’t love me. If you loved me, you’d come away with me.”
While Carmen wants to lure José away as her latest conquest, Micaela wants to win him back. It is her ravishing aria that anchors the courageous fidelity of her virtue and ensures our sympathy with another of Bizet’s marvelous creations. Micaela does not appear in the Prosper Merimée novella upon which the opera is based. This bit of trivia may appear insignificant until we weigh the number of adaptations of Carmen and the pride of place Bizet shares with Merimée.
The 20th century was obsessed with Carmen, and directors from the stage and screen adapted Bizet’s masterpiece while reconsidering the original novella. James Cain, who wrote the novel Mildred Pierce, first wrote the Carmen-inspired Serenade (which was turned into a kitsch film vehicle for Mario Lanza). The cutting-edge film directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francesco Rosi both adapted Carmen, as did the theatre directors Peter Brook and Peter Hall. Vicente Aranda’s 2003 film is one of the few adaptations to overturn Bizet in favor of Merimée. Pop adaptations have ranged from Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones to MTV’s “hip-hop opera” starring Beyoncé Knowles.
We may never know how many times Bizet has turned over in his grave since 1875. But he died from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 36, shortly after the premiere of Carmen. The “mother problem” Donington refers to manifest itself in hallucinations the composer suffered after her death. Bizet spoke of seeing his mother “coming into the room. She would stand next to me and put her hand on my heart. With that the agony would become more intense. I would suffocate, and it would seem to me that her hand so heavily weighing upon me was actually the cause of my suffering.”
Donington notes the “cause was angina,” but credits the composer’s associations as psychologically correct. He notes, “pressure which appears to have built up within Bizet’s unconscious from such contradictory impulses of love and hatred, fascination and repulsion, fear and guilt, might have been potent both for danger and creation.”
Donington and Conrad both allude to the uncanny night of Bizet’s death, in which the creator of the title role of Carmen, Galli-Marié “nearly collapsed in the scene where the cards foretell her death” (Donington). Conrad says she cried “Bizet is dead” and Donington supports her claim to have said, after fainting in the wings, “it was not for herself that she was afraid.”
The “twilight zone” synchronicity of the composer’s death and his protagonist’s subsequent immortality points toward the enigmatic nature of both the tragic hero and the creative genius.
Dionysus (aka: Bacchus) is not only the god of wine and pleasure; he is the patron god of the theatre. His is the emblematic twin faces of drama’s mask, one with a smile and the other with tears. Dionysus was also “twice-born,” once from the mortal consort of Jupiter, Semele and next from the thigh of the father-god himself.
If Apollo inspires the prototypical bard, Orpheus, then Dionysus consorts with Eros and inflames the passion and ecstasy that give art the force of nature.
The Dionysian or Bacchanalian Dithyramb, an ecstatic hymn of praise, comes to life again in Carmen. Conrad cites Carmen’s second birth “from the spirit of music” as she sings and dances her dithyrambic Gypsy songs.
Carmen’s embrace of life and death – like that other enigmatic operatic anti-hero, Don Giovanni – is an example of opera’s ability to reunite opposites, according to Conrad. Philosophically, opera synthesizes the thesis and antithesis of the dialectic. This is experienced psychologically and physiologically through the catharsis evoked by the union of drama and music that is at its most intense and viscerally powerful in opera. In other words, opera rocks, and Carmen is the bomb.