Prima la donna e poi la musica
This article was written for Lyric Opera’s
production of Carmen in the National Concert Hall Dublin on 15, 16 & 18 October 2016.
In 1786 Salieri’s one-act comic opera Prima
la musica e poi le parole/First the music and then the words opened in Vienna, ninety years before Carmen found its first, indisputable acclaim there.
I was reminded of this, faced with writing something fresh about Bizet’s opera, a work beset over the decades by more clichéd and repetitive commentaries than any other.
Ask yourself: is there another tragic opera in the French répertoire classique so dominated by such a credible, central female character?
No? Try the repertorio italiano then, and think Norma, Lucia, Violetta, Tosca ... and now you have Prima la donna e poi la musica/First the leading lady, then
the music, and apply that to our French heroine.
‘J’ai fait mon héroïne bohémienne (I have
made my heroine a gypsy)’ wrote Mérimée in his novella Carmen thirty years before Bizet reimagined her for the stage in an incomparably wide range of melody, harmony and orchestral colour
topped off with his great gift of characterisation.
The operatic sub-genre verismo (realistic works which would focus on the seamier side of life) was still
15 years off, and Puccini was only 17; and so Carmen was incomprehensible, even offensive, to the patrons of the Opéra-Comique in Paris who felt, that night in March 1875, that the respectability of their state-subsidised theatre had been sullied
by ‘Castilian licentiousness’.
Bizet held firm, refusing to tone down the mélodrame or to dilute its violence and cruelty.
His Carmen at the time, 37 year old Célestine Galli-Marié, was his greatest ally, startling the audience with the directness and the abandon of her performance.
But it wasn’t enough for a disconsolate and seriously ill Bizet; he died exactly three months after its opening night failure, never to know of the unprecedented and consistent
success of Carmen.
Like Purcell, Mozart, Schubert and Bellini before him, he was only in his mid-thirties.
Some months later Carmen went to Vienna, where it was enthusiastically received, and eight years after that it was brought back to Paris to both critical and popular approval and since then it has never been out
of the top ten.
The score of the opera is full of individual and distinctive melodies which crowd upon each other and the inter-relation between the music and the very
engaging libretto-narrative is inspired.
Mérimée’s story was the spark which enlightened the imaginations of writers Meilhac and Halévy.
For instance, in the book, Carmen is a much coarser personality than in the opera, and the toreador is not introduced until near the end, one of a succession of lovers whom Carmen
has had since she ensnared Don José.
For the opera, the librettists made Escamillo a principal character, while Micaëla – so essential for dramatic
contrast, especially in her two beautiful set pieces (acts 1 and 3) - is a totally new player in the narrative.
In the book José slays Carmen on a lonely road
outside Córdoba the day after the fiesta; in the opera the scene of her murder is outwith the arena in Sevilla while the bullfight is in progress; she dies on the street just as Escamillo is acclaimed victor by the crowd within.
The train-crash scenario between Carmen’s uninhibited spirit and José’s naïve possessiveness is central to the opera; she knows neither past nor future and lives entirely in the
present; love (as in romantic passion) is not in her programme for life; love for her is a bird that cannot be tamed, a lawless gypsy child, and this is what José completely fails to understand; Micaëla (and the messages from his mother) is his
past; Escamillo is Carmen’s present.
José and Carmen’s failure to connect is underscored in their dialogues of seduction (act 1), of conflict (acts
2 and 3) and of tragedy (act 4), the critical plot points in the accelerated narrative.
Carmen too of course is one of a million classic stories devised by
human imagination in which two possible outcomes far outweigh all others – either it ends with a man and a woman united in love or it ends in death.
the weak-willed and inexperienced soldier José is in love with the naïve and childlike Micaëla, he becomes infatuated with the allure and the excesses of Carmen; throwing off his military uniform and rejecting the possibility of a simple life
with Micaëla, he passes completely under the emasculating spell of Carmen’s dark ego.
When toréador Escamillo looms up again (act 3) it precipitates
the complete loss of José’s soul and the impossibly of its redemption and inevitably, in futile, self-destructive rage, he lashes out at Carmen.
The dramatic strength of the opera version of Mérimée’s story, its dark sentimentality, the music that cannot be ignored or slept through, highlights of which have become part
of the soundtrack of so many of our lives: these elements may have been rooted in Bizet’s own psychological turmoil - his mother complex, his debilitating attacks of angina pectoris, ungovernable rages which alarmed those close to him, and his
final psychosomatic crisis when Carmen finally went into rehearsal in late 1874.
To re-evaluate Carmen the opera in this way requires of us
a gear change to lateral thinking and a possibly uncomfortable encounter with unexpected and lesser-known aspects of the work.
Bizet’s triumph therefore was posthumous;
opening night was calamitously received; and he was badly affected by the adverse criticism; one obituarist faintly praised him as ‘a composer of concert music who had regrettably dabbled with the theatre’.
We know au contraire that he had devoted the greater part of his short life to opera and it was for the stage that he wrote his greatest music.
(I might add though that having listened again recently to his Symphony in C, a student piece written when he was 17, then ‘lost’ until first performed and
recorded in the 1930s, it too is a great piece of music).
Yet ‘vulgar’, ‘undramatic’, ‘suffocating’, ‘contemptible’
were the key notes of the press headlines.
Some time before opening night Bizet had written:
‘They make out that I am obscure, complicated, tedious, more fettered by technical skill than lit by inspiration; well this time I have written a work that is all clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody’
- it could have been a self-penned epitaph.
He was one of very few opera composers, in
an age dominated by Verdi and Wagner, to create a genuinely individual style; Gounod and Delibes may have been his reference points musically, but with Carmen he took French opera into unchartered waters; Massenet (with Manon and Werther)
bravely continued where Bizet had left off, and Tchaikovsky publicly acknowledged Bizet’s influence on his operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades.
There are two other Bizet operas which occasionally come our way, now usually live in HD or on radio, and they are worth chasing: Les pêcheurs de perles (1863) and La jolie fille de Perth (1867) in both of which all the masterful
work so evident in Carmen is well rehearsed in terms of inventive orchestration and sophisticated musicianship.
In Carmen Bizet uses wind instruments
to underpin the crucial leitmotifs; Carmen’s instrument in the orchestra is the flute and violins are used to imitate guitars.
And the ‘faux espagnol’
flavours of the music are underscored in spicy dissonances, sliding harmonies, and some of operas’ liveliest rhythms, dances and gypsy songs.
may well articulate her manipulative and mesmerising character – prima la donna e poi la musica - but José’s plight is the real emotional axis of the opera; his is the only character whose development is progressed, but to the point
of disintegration, and his music travels from tenderness with Micaëla to pleadings with Carmen to the ravings of his final confrontation with her; it’s a duet, of sorts, with short powerful exchanges, a gripping finale which conveys the fracturing
of his mind and soul as persuasively as it does Carmen’s disdain and ultimate shallowness, both of them cut off from the dance of life.
For after all aren’t there really only two fundamental stories in fiction as in life - a man or a woman on a journey, and a stranger comes to town..?
I recently re-viewed Luchino Visconti’s 1960 film Rocco e i suoi fratelli /Rocco and his brothers and while there is no reference at all to Bizet’s opera the principal dramatic
thrust of Rocco’s story substantially and impressively echoes and reflects back to us those key melodramatic moments from Carmen with which we are so familiar: highly recommended.
The particular recordings of Carmen which I used in my teaching for years were those of Leontyne Price/Franco Corelli (RCA, 1963), and Teresa Berganza/Plácido Domingo (Deutsche Grammophon 1977).
Then, too late to share with students, I discovered a 1950 set of LPs with Solange Michel and Raoul Jobin, complete with the soothing hiss and whoosh of diamond on vinyl; obscure?
- yes, but incredible stuff and well worth begging or borrowing.
However for the desert island I am taking Callas’ 1964 EMI reading (she never performed it on
The excitement generated by her interpretation is the most ruthless, yet refined and fatalistic of them all; Callas finds, in a studio, this opera’s contradictory
requisite – expressing the Spanish gypsy’s violent and passionate nature in elegant French music - and, in so doing, she eclipses her colleagues in a recording made in her last year of active service to opera: a collector’s item bar none.