Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Carmen's Enduring Allure

Notes on Bizet's Carmen
for Opera Roanoke's new production,
April 27 & 29

The American poet and librettist Dana Gioia has written perceptively about the power of music, and opera in particular: "What opera excels at is presenting peak moments of human emotion. While the structure of opera is narrative, its power is lyric. Better perhaps than any other art form, it can represent the full emotional intensity of a specific moment…"

Carmen is an opera full of those “peak moments” that keep us coming back to Bizet’s gypsies and toreadors for more. The score resounds with “emotional intensity” because its composer gave us characters that are at once larger than life and true to it. And that apparent paradox is another exceptional quality in opera’s one-of-a-kind appeal.

Historically, Carmen is famous for ushering in an era of realism in opera that reached its peak in the verismo style of Puccini. Carmen was also one of opera’s notorious opening night disasters. The 1875 Parisian audience was unprepared for the frank portrayals of everyday factory workers and soldiers, and shocked by the “passionate seriousness” with which Bizet treated the affairs of his heroine and her lovers. According to the opera historian Winton Dean, Bizet made "his characters react to love and jealousy not in the conventional stagey manner but like men and women of flesh and blood – people whose behavior was not discussed in polite society… This made audiences uncomfortable."

While audiences soon outgrew their discomfort and crowned Carmen the masterpiece of French opera it is, its popularity must owe to something deeper than the acquired comfort of familiarity or the infectiousness of its music. What caused a scandal in 1875 might reveal to us the essence of Carmen’s allure and that special “lyric power” of opera itself. The femme fatale character of Carmen is an archetype, and archetypes are symbols that affect us with their inherent power. Carmen’s symbolic opposite, the sun to her moon, the light to her dark, is Micaela, the proverbial “girl next door,” whom the emotionally stunted Don José would have been safer marrying. But “safe” dramas are not only oxymoronic they are predictably dull.

Bizet’s exceptional music reinforces the latent strength of his characters’ symbolic potential with a dramatic thrust that makes Carmen one of those operas as beloved by musicians as it is by audiences. He matches the pulsing volatility of each character’s passion, a generative source of great theatre itself, with music that brings the drama to life literally before our eyes and ears. The opening night audience in 1875 was scandalized because they were unprepared to confront such tantalizing danger on the operatic stage. That stumbling-block break with convention is exactly what enables us to be swept along for the thrilling ride Carmen is. Though he is unstable and hot-tempered, narcissistic and immature, Don José’s passionate sincerity, if not endearing him to everyone, makes him a true-to-life young man. And though we know it would be another story entirely if José married Micaela, we can’t help but be torn between affection for the pure-hearted soprano and unnerved by our dangerous attraction to the sultry-voiced mezzo, Carmen.

The potency of one of those archetypal symbols was manifest in a fateful performance of Carmen three months after its premiere. On the night Bizet suddenly died, aged 36, the creator of the role of Carmen, Galli-Marié almost collapsed in the Act III “card trio” where the gypsy ominously foreshadows her own death. After fainting in the wings following the scene, she claimed, “it was not for herself that she was afraid.” Bizet may be the clearest example of an artistic genius whose fame rests almost exclusively on one work whose success he did not live to see. Brahms claimed to have seen Carmen over 20 times, and Tchaikovsky predicted its enduring fame soon after its ill-fated premiere. Wagner considered it a masterpiece. It is a vindication of Bizet’s exceptional gift that Carmen is one of the greatest dramas on any stage. The first opera we produced in Shaftman Performance Hall, it is our pleasure to present Carmen again for Opera Roanoke audiences in this 10th anniversary season of the Jefferson Center.

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