• Carmen: Around the Opera (trivia, reception, performance history, more)

    Interesting facts about Carmen

    - The circumstances around the opera's reception by public and critic at the time of its world premiere constitutes one of the greatest unfairness in the history of classical music. Bizet was rather proud of and optimistic about the qualities of his work - said that it was "all clarity and vivacity, full of color and melody," but the apathetic reception disappointed him so much that many musical historians attribute to his distress and depression an important role in the heart condition that prematurely took his life (at age 36), just three months after the opening. Shortly after that, Carmen started its journey towards becoming one of the most successful and popular operas of all time, and it is sad and ironic that Bizet did not survive to see its triumph.

    - At his death, compounding on this injustice, Bizet was lauded as a composer of concert music "who had regrettably dabbled with the theater."

    - Richard Strauss, himself a master orchestrator, once said of Carmen: "If you want to know how to orchestrate, don't study Wagner's scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and rest is in its proper place." Camille Saint-Saëns was another fan.

    - Carmen's first performers met the piece with puzzlement. The instrumentalists in the orchestra were confounded by the score and felt infuriated. The singers were puzzled too. The chorists were unhappy that they were supposed to smoke cigarettes on stage, and had to fight. Some of them felt ill. The sexuality of the story made performances and public very uneasy.

    - Du Locle, the general director of the Théâtre de l'Opéra-Comique, was one of Bizet's supporters and did want to stage his opera. In spite of du Locle's endorsement, however, all was not rosy for Bizet at the Opéra-Comique. Du Locle continued to support him but had doubts himself, calling the score "Cochin-Chinese" music, and asked Bizet to tone down the realism. Singers Célestine Galli-Marié in the role of Carmen and Paul Lhérie in the role of Don José strongly supported the composer and the rehearsals continued. Du Locle however had a co-director, De Leuven, who hated the piece and resigned over Du Locle's insistence in producing the opera, complaining that he wouldn't allow the murder of a woman on "his" stage.

    - Bizet's self confidence was shot due to the above rehearsal difficulties. At the premiere, Bizet was seen pacing outside near the stage door. His friend, young composer Vincent d'Indy, heard from him: "I sense defeat. I foresee a definite and hopeless flop. This time I am really sunk."

    - Public reaction was unenthusiastic and perplexed. The critics issued negative reviews, saying that the score lacked color (!?!?!), lacked novelty and distinction, had no plan, no unit, and was neither dramatic nor scenic. Particularly vehement was a critic called Léon Escudier who had been coached by embitterned De Leuven to bash the piece. Escudier wrote that Carmen was "dull, obscure, vulgar, suffocating, and contemptible." It was too close for the French critics' taste to a composer they despised - one Richard Wagner (this was particularly damaging because in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, any reference to Wagner was considered anti-French). The biggest blow to Bizet's self-esteem came from none other than his mentor Gounod, who said that Bizet had stolen from him the melody for Micaëla's third act aria, and that whatever else was not stolen from him was "sauce without the fish."

    - The parallel with Wagner made by contemporary critics is quite incomprehensible. Carmen is often orchestrated with woodwinds following the singers, and violins used to immitate guitars and mimic a sliding vocal manner, in a crystalline and sparkling style that is far from Wagner's thick and dense orchestration. It is definitely a numbers opera that is miles away from Wagner's written-through style. Go figure... Most likely these critics were just puzzled, and anything that sounded strange to their ears, they pegged as influenced by the big bad wolf Wagner. It is true, however, that Carmen does use some leitmotivs, such as an augmented second associated with inexorable fate. Also, instruments are used to emphacize character (Carmen is symbolized by the flute).

    - In spite of what the critics seem to have seen that reminded them of Wagner, the German composer himself by one account at least, abhorred Carmen (although there is another account stating the opposite, that Wagner liked Carmen). His supposed profound dislike for it was one of the reasons for his breach with Nietzche, who loved it, saying that the score was "wicked, subtle, and fatalistic" while remaining accessible.

    - Tchaikovsky was a good prognosticator of Carmen's future. He loved it, and insisted that in spite of its bad start, it would soon enjoy worldwide popularity.

    - Carmen was severely distorted for 100 years. There was little acceptance for the fact that Bizet wanted spoken dialogue and sided his work on the camp of opéra-comique (which does not mean comedy, but rather, opera with spoken dialogue like its German counterpart Singspiel). Particularly, singers resented the additional acting they needed to engage in, thanks to the opera's extensive dialogues. Bizet deliberately aimed for that because he thought that he wasn't very lucky in writing Grand-Opéra for the Palais Garnier, and thought that by giving Carmen spoken dialogue he'd be luckier with getting it staged by the Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique, less stuffy and traditionalist than its grand rival.

    - Bizet's original score is very clear and authoritative, as its publication was supervised by the composer himself who personally corrected the proofs, with a prelude and twenty-seven musical numbers linked by spoken dialogue. It was published by the Choudens firm in 1875; yet for almost 100 years the very original Choudens score was almost never performed, and people pegged on it all sorts of variations. Spurious versions with alterations were re-published by the same Choudens house, further mudding the issue.

    - Given the difficulty with the acceptance of the version with spoken dialogue, Bizet gave up and agreed with writing recitatives for the piece, in anticipation of its premiere in Vienna in October of 1875. However the next day after signing this contract, Bizet died. Composer Ernest Guiraud then composed the recitatives.

    - Guiraud's version however eliminated the elements of comedy and ambiguity contained in the libretto's witty dialogue. The pointillistic interplay of the French language both spoken and sung which is one of the hallmarks of this work was also lost. On the other hand, Guiraud's music competently blends with Bizet's, so that there are defenders of both versions. This writer (Almaviva) can be counted on the camp of those who prefer Carmen with spoken dialogue.

    - Guiraud was the same composer who shaped up Offenbach's unfinished (due to the composer's death) Les Contes d'Hoffmann for its première.

    - Musicologist Fritz Oeser in 1064 found in a dust-covered, forgotten cupboard at the Opéra-Comique, a conductor's score and orchestral parts in Bizet's handwritting, containing music that the composer himself had decided to exclude from the Choudens published edition of 1875. This introduced still a third variation - now we have those who advocate for the Choudens score, others for the Guiraud version, and others for the Oeser edition. Critics of the Oeser edition say that he falsified the text by re-writing stage directions and excising Bizet's own modifications and improvements.

    - In 1969 EMI recorded in studio the complete Choudens edition with full spoken dialogues - presumably the one Bizet intended to be the definitive one since it counted on the composer's careful revision - with conductor Rafael Frübeck de Burgos directing L'Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris, Grace Bumbry as Carmen, Jon Vickers as Don José, Mirella Freni as Micaëla, and Kostas Paskalis as Escamillo. Interesting is the fact that the non-Francophone members of the cast had their spoken dialogue dubbed by a separate cast of French actors and actresses. This recording became quite authoritative and did a lot in making of the Choudens edition the one most adopted nowadays by the majority of opera houses in the world.

    - Carmen is considered to be a precursor of the Italian Verismo style (which it precedes by two decades), in its raw treatment of common people in their lives entagled with jealousy, passion, and murder. La Traviata had already made a move in that direction but it was still very much filled with romantic love, while in Carmen there is no romanticism except for the brief introduction of naïve girl Micaëla.

    - Bizet once wrote in a letter: "I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, and the supernatural, there would be no longer the means for writing one note."

    - Carmen is arguably the most successful mezzo role in all opera. Her manipulative and magnetic personality is rendered by very sensual music - the Habanera and the Seguidilla are very sexy.

    - Don José's deterioration is very well rendered by the music, starting with the lyric "Parle-moi de ma mère" to the impassionate "La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée" to the ravings of his final confrontation with Carmen.

    - One of the weirdest events around a performance of Carmen happened in 1880. American soprano Minnie Hauk embraced tenor Ravelli when he was about to sing a high note. The tenor was enraged, feeling that his colleague was likely to hinder his delivery, and tried to push her away. She held on to his jacket, and while he pushed her to the direction of the orchestra pit, all the buttons in his jacket flew off. He stopped what he was singing and protested out loud "look, she's ripped my jacket!" - and the public applaused, thinking that the line was part of the opera. The tenor was furious, and subsequently threatened to murder the soprano, and was supposed to be serious about it. But they still had more runs to perform. Consequently, the soprano's husband armed himself with a revolver, took a position in one of the wings, and said to the tenor that he would shoot him if he approached his wife. The rest of the run featured ackward performances in which Don José and Carmen never got physically close. The impresario for the production, James Henry Mapleson, wrote that under these circumstances "love-making looks a little unreal."

    - Carmen wasn't that poorly received in France after all at least in one aspect - number of performances - since it did achieve 45 performances in 1875 and 3 in 1876. However some sustain that yes, it was negatively seen in its homeland at first, and many of these performances were more attributable to the fact that it was scandalous enough to attract interest - there's no such thing as bad publicity! For instance, one can imagine that some people would have made a point of buying tickets, once the Parisian press said that children should not be admitted to it because it was immoral. It didn't come back to Paris until 1883, although it was given before that in Marseilles, Lyon, and Dieppe.

    - Abroad, however, Carmen was making a killing (pun intended!). Since its Vienna premiere at the Vienna Court Opera in October of the same year of its French failed premiere (1875), Carmen was well received and started its inexorable rise to popularity, and was given in many cities throughout Europe. Brahms liked it so much that he saw the Vienna run 20 times. Brussels saw it in 1876, and London in 1878, followed by Dublin, St. Petersburg, and New York City the same year. In New York, it was first given at the Academy of Music. It became wildly popular in Germany, where the country's Chancellor Otto von Bismark saw it 27 times.

    - By 1905 Carmen had already achieved more than 1,000 performances at the Opéra-Comique alone!

    - The Metropolitan Opera premiere was on 9 January 1884, to mixed reception due to less than ideal singers. Soon enough, however, it achieved in this opera house the success it was seeing elsewhere, and Caruso sang his first Don José at the Met in 1906. By 2011, the Met had given Carmen more than 1,000 times.

    - Carmen's melodies are among the most popular downloads for ring tones of mobile phones.



    The Grove Book of Operas, Stanley Sadie and Laura Macy (editors)
    The New Kobbé's Opera Book, The Earl of Harenwood and Antony Peattie (editors)
    The Rough Guide to Opera, Matthew Boyden
    A Night at the Opera, Denis Forman
    Opera - Composers, Works, Performers, András Batta
    The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Opera, Stanley Sadie (editors)
    Carmen - Black Dog Opera Library, David Foil
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Carmen: around the opera started by Almaviva View original post
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -

      Many beautiful women had sung Carmen over the years.

      One of them was French singer Jane Rhodes, also known as the ""Bardot of the Opéra". She was not perhaps the best Carmen from a purely vocal point of view, but we can watch her in an interview in youtube with footage of her 1959 Carmen.

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      In 1943 a musical under the title of Carmen Jones was premiered at Broadway. Written by Oscar Hammerstein II, and inspired in Bizet's music for Carmen, it was an update to WWII, with Afro-American protagonists. Carmen (Jones) is a parachute maker, Don José (Joe) an Air Force man, Micaela (Cindy Lou) her sweet fiancée and Escamillo (Husky) a boxer.

      There was also a film, directed by Otto Preminger.

      Dorothy Dandridge (with Marilyn Horne doing the singing) as Carmen Jones, in the Habanera:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Every Carmen lover knows the great CD recorded by Teresa Berganza, Plácido Domingo, Ileana Cotrubas and Sherril Milnes, with Claudio Abbado conducting.

      However, it's more difficult to get hold of a filmed version of Carmen, with the same pair of protagonists (changing Cotrubas/Milnes for Ricciarelli/Raimondi), with Pierre Dervaux conducting, from a performance at Paris Opéra, in 1980. Arguably the best filmed version of Carmen available, with Berganza (not the most sensual of singers, but vocally peerless, and a very good fit for the role of Carmen) being forty-seven years old, but in great form, and Domingo thirty-nine. Some fragments available in youtube:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin wrote in 1967 his Carmen Suite. It's a one-act ballet, with music taken for the opera and arranged by Shchedrin to produce an interesting revision of Bizet's masterpiece:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a 2005 South African operatic film, and a modern remake of Bizet's Carmen. It was shot entirely in Xhosa, and combines music from the original opera an traditional African music.

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Prosper Mérimée's Carmen (in French):


      English translation:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      In 1983, Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura directed Carmen, a long ballet choreographed by the famous flamenco dancer Antonio Gades. It was based on both Mérimée's novel and Bizet's opera. The plot line is that the modern dancers re-enact in their personal lives Carmen's tragic love affair, up to her death.

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