BIZET: Carmen

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Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)

Carmen (Highlights)

Bizet's opera Carmen was first produced at the Opera-Comique inParis in 1875. The French genre of opera-comique had arisen in the eighteenth century as aGallic counterpart of the Italian opera buffa, injecting an air of contemporary realisminto operatic form. The success of operetta in the nineteenth century offered a challengeto the form, which retained the characteristic of the German Singspiel, spoken dialoguetaking the place of the recitative of opera seria or French grand opera, but increasinglylacked power or conviction. Carmen, in its original version with spoken dialogue, derivedlargely from Prosper Merimee's novel on which the opera was based. created something ofa scandal, and opened the way to a new form of opera. While nineteenth century Frenchaudiences at the Opera-Comique might find in Micaela a recognisable character, Carmen, avicious outcast from decent society, was not the ideal heroine for popular familyentertainment.

Georges Bizet was born in Paris in 1838, the son of a singingteacher. He entered the Conservatoire at the age of ten and even in childhood had somelessons, at least, from Charles Gounod, and later became a pupil of Fromental Halevy, aprolific composer of opera, whose daughter, subject like her mother to intermittent boutsof mental instability, he married in 1869. Ludovic Halevy, a cousin, collaborated on thelibretto for Carmen. As a student Bizet won the expected successes, culminating in 1857 inthe first prize in the Prix de Rome, followed by three years at the Villa Medici, inaccordance with the terms of the award, modified to allow him to remain in Rome for thefinal year, rather than move to Germany. In Paris, where he returned in September 1860 onreceiving news of his mother's illness, he earned a living by hack-work for the theatreand for publishers, interspersed with more ambitious undertakings, including Les pecheursdes perles, staged with moderate success at the Opera-Comique in 1863, followed, in 1867,by Lajolie fille de Perth at the Theatre-Lyrique. In 1872 the opera Djamileh, mounted atthe Opera-Comique, was a failure, as was the original score for the melodramaL'Arlesienne, a collaboration with Alphonse Daudet.

The projected opera on the subject of Carmen met manydifficulties. There were natural objections to the subject on the part of the theatremanagement, followed by further objections from singers to whom the title-r6le wasoffered. Bizet himself was constantly involved with the demands of his wife and hermother, while handling practical difficulties during rehearsals, once the work wascomplete, with a chorus that found difficulty in singing and acting simultaneously and anorchestra that was used to lighter fare. The librettists Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhacwere generally too busy to give much attention to a work they thought doomed, but didtheir best to modify the production to avoid offending the public. Galli-Marie, the firstCarmen, and Paul Lherie, who sang the partof Don Jose, supported Bizet's intentions.

The first performance of Carmen,on 3rd March 1875, was received relatively coldly. The critics were equally shocked,condemning the licentiousness of the characters and the alleged lack of melody in a scorethat they considered Wagnerian in its orchestral excesses. Gounod, who had congratulatedthe composer on his work, confided to friends in the theatre that the only decent melodieswere one filched from him, for Micaela in the third act, and the rest from Spain. Therewere those, however, who had some notion of what Bizet was attempting, praising thisinjection of realism.

There is no doubt that Carmen

was at first a failure. It had a run of some 45 performances, and was able, at least as asucces de scandale, to attract the curious. The composer died on 3rd June. Foryears he had suffered a recurrence of a throat infection and now, weakened, it seems, bydepression at the apparent failure of his new opera, he lacked the will to survive. Theactual cause of Bizet's death was heart failure, coming after days of high fever, theimmediate result of spending too much time in the water during a swim in the Seine. Duringa performance of Carmen on the day of hisdeath, Galli-Marie had been seized by a feeling of strong foreboding, as she sang thewords of the card scene - "moi d'abord, ensuite lui, pour tous les deux la mort"- and was overcome, as she left the stage. A few hours later Bizet, who had left Paris forthe country air of Bougival in May, was dead.

Carmen was not repeated atthe Opera-Comique until 1883, when it was performed in an emasculated version thatprovoked as much hostility as the earlier version. By this time the opera had won aninternational reputation, particularly after its production in Vienna in October 1875,with recitatives written by Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud, and audiences in Paris hadlearned what to expect. In the autumn of 1883 the Paris production was revised andGalli-Marie re-engaged to sing the r61e she had memorably created and triumphantlyrepeated abroad. The opera was at last accepted by the French public as a masterpiece ofFrench operatic repertoire.

The story of Carmen is essentially a simple one. The gypsyfactory-girl Carmen, the centre of male attention, flirts with the Dragoons Corporal DonJose, who is attracted to her in spite of his long-standing love for Micaela, a girl fromhis own village. When Carmen is arrested for starting a brawl in the factory, Don Joseallows her to escape. She later induces him to desert and join her and her criminalcompanions, smugglers, at their mountain hide-away. Meanwhile Carmen has fallen in lovewith the toreador Escamillo. At a final scene outside the bull-ring in Seville Don Jose,frantic with jealousy, draws his knife and kills her.

{1} The Prelude to the opera includes music associated with thetoreador Escamillo, immediately followed by the sinister Fate theme. The first act openswith a group of soldiers, lounging in the square in front of the tobacco-factory whereCarmen works. They discuss the girls and are joined by Micaela, who is looking for DonJose but does not wait with the soldiers. The guard changes and Don Jose takes over,with his men. {2} In Lacloche asonnee (The bell has rung) the factory- bell sounds, asignal for the girls in the factory to stop work, the moment the men outside have beenwaiting for. Carmen is, of course, the center of their attention, and here sings herfamous Habanera, {3} recounting the dangers of love and the danger of flouting her, if sheis in love with anyone. As she leaves to return to work, she looks round and throws aflower at the feet of Don Jose, leaving him to a gradual realisation of her power overhim. The act continues with a scene between Don Jose and Micaela which does something torestore his equanimity. There is a fracas in the factory and Carmen is arrested, later toinduce Don Jose to allow her to escape, {4} fascinating him with her Seguidilla (Neartheramparts of Seville, at the tavern of Lillas Pastia, I’ll dance the seguidilla anddrink manzanilla).

The second act is set in the tavern of Lillas Pastia, {5}introduced by an Entr'acte that recalls the soldier's song of Don Jose and the world henow seems about to leave for the gypsy life of Carmen. She and her friends Frasquita andMercedes are found in the tavern with a group of officers and Captain Zuniga tells Carmenof Don Jose's arrest for dereliction of duty, his release and his demotion. {6} Thetoreador Escamillo comes in and proposes a toast to the officers, with whom he has fellowfeeling as a warrior in the bull-ring. He then concentrates
Disc: 1
1 Prelude
2 La cloche a sonnee
3 Habanera
4 Sequidilla and Duet
5 Entr'acte
6 Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre
7 La fleur que tu m'avais jetee
8 Entr'acte
9 Ecoute, ecoute, compagnon
10 Quant au douanier, c'est notre affaire!
11 Je dis que rien m'espouvante
12 Entr'acte
13 Les voici! les voici!
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