• Carmen: Genesis of the Opera (circumstances of composion, source, synopsis)

    - Bizet was a very precocious musical child prodigy. He was reading music at the age of four, played the piano very proficiently at age six, and at age nine he was able to play all Mozart sonatas from memory. He was admitted at a young age to the Conservatoire de Paris and won in 1857 the prestigious Prix de Rome.

    - Bizet married the daughter of one of his music teachers, composer Jacques-François Fromental Halévy, who wrote La Juive.

    - Bizet's first major work was the Symphony in C, composed in 1855 under the orientation of Gounod.

    - Bizet's first attempts at musical theatre weren't poorly received by the critics at the time, but weren't particularly successful with the public. The first one, Les Pêcheurs de Perles in 1863 enjoyed praise thanks to its lyricism. His second in 1986, La Jolie Fille de Perth, was equally favorably reviewed (this writer Almaviva doesn't really like it). However, his next five efforts stalled and remained as sketches. Then he completed an unfinished work by his mentor Halévy, Noé, and wrote his one-act Djamileh which premiered in 1972 at the Opéra-Comique. While still not a success, it was good enough to impress the theatre's director, Camille du Locle, who then invited Bizet to work on a full-lenght opera with red-hot librettists Halévy and Meilhac.

    - Charles Gounod was Bizet's mentor. His works before Carmen were very much influenced by Gounod's style. In Carmen however Bizet sharply parted ways with that style and was quite innovative.

    - The innovation in the score is seen right at the beginning with the signature melody that sets the prelude on fire. It sounds like nothing else that was being written at the time - it suggests Spain but not quite, and it is intense, viril, and exciting.

    - The famous Habanera song is supposed to be - as the name indicates - inspired by the music of Cuba. However, it was from a Spanish songwriter that Bizet got the inspiration for it. His name was Sebastián de Yradier, and his song was called "El arreglito." Bizet however was unaware that he was getting his base from a specific composer, since he was under the impression that the song was a folk tune. He did transform the tune enough to make it his own.

    - Supposedly Bizet had the idea of setting Prosper Mérimée's bleak and dark novel to music entirely on his own. Nobody suggested it to him. It seems to have occurred to him around 1873.

    - Bizet's librettists Halévy (first name Ludovic, no relation to the composer of La Juive) and Henri Meilhac were in high esteem at the time. They had written libretti for Delibes, Flotow, Massenet, and for most of Offenbach's operettas. They were also the authors of the plays that inspired the operettas Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow.

    - The two gentleman wrote the libretto at Bizet's and du Locle's request but didn't think much of it; they were busy with other projects that they deemed more important. Given their lack of attention, Bizet had to tinker with the libretto on his own, to adapt it to his musical demands.

    - The score - although largely the composer's own invention - does have a lot of Spanish color with the touches of paso-doble, bullfight music, and gipsy songs. It is interesting to notice that Carmen (Bizet) and Capriccio Espagnol (Rimsky-Korsakov) are two of the most identifiable pieces of Spanish-inspired music in the repertory, and neither one is by a Spanish composer. Bizet was offered a tour of Spain to get local colors and inspiration, but declined, saying that it would only confuse him. So, the Spanish-style melodies are largely his own creation, although there are bits here and there that do indeed derive from the music of the neighboring country (like the source for the Habanera above mentioned, and the little song with which Carmen tries to provoke Zuniga in act I, which is indeed the only real Spanish folk song of the opera).

    - In Mérimée's novel, Don José tells the story himself. He appears tougher and more brutal than in the libretto. He had already committed three murders before he met Carmen. The Micaëlla character appears for no more than one line in the novel, and it was extended by the librettists. Also, the original doesn't have many of the local color that was added to the libretto: kids playing soldiers, the smuggler's quintet, fortune-telling. Also, the idea of setting the murder of Carmen outside of the bullring belongs to the libretto only. These additions made of Mérimée's dark single-narrative story, a more lively snapshot of Spanish life. Also notable is the fact that the libretto has a lot more pace than the novel, with the story pounding along in big strokes.


    Act I

    We are in Seville, Spain, around 1820, in a typical sleepy day. Soldiers hang out in a square outside of the armory, next to a cigarette factory. The townspeople walk back and forth, doing some people-watching. A country girl from Navarre by the name of Micaëla approaches the soldiers and inquires about a corporal called Don José. His colleague Moralès and other soldiers tell her that he is due back soon for the change of the guard, and invite her to wait with them. However, their flirtatious behavior scares her off, saying she'll return later.

    Don José arrives with the change of guard and is told about the country girl's visit. His peers tease him about her, and raise the issue of the cigarette factory girls. José says he pays no attention to them. It's time for the workers' break at the factory, and the girls come out. Men from the town gather around them, praising their beauty, especially that of the most attractive of them all, a certain Carmen, which they expect with trepidation. Carmen comes out and is indeed seductive, provoking all the men in the matter of who she might choose as a lover. She sings that love is untamable like a wild bird and as lawless as a gypsy child.

    Don José is the only man in the gathering that seems untouched by her charms, which spikes Carmen's interest. She tosses an acacia flower to him. The corporal seems annoyed but does get troubled by her gesture and keeps the flower. As Micaëla comes back, he hides it in his tunic. It turns out that the country girl is from Don José's native village, and brings a letter from his mother, as well as being the porter of a kiss from the old lady. They sing a duet about their former happiness at home. Don José reads the letter and sees that the mother wants him to marry Micaëla and return to the simple village life. Embarrassed, the girl leaves, promising to meet him shortly.

    A commotion ensues - there is fighting going on inside the factory. Lieutenant Zuniga sends Don José there to sort it out, and he emerges dragging out a defiant Carmen, who has slashed the face of another worker. Carmen is sarcastic at Zuniga, who leaves to secure a warrant for her arrest, leaving José in charge of guarding her.

    Carmen leashes out all of her seduction power on Don José, promising to spend a night with him at the tavern owned by a certain Lillas Pastia, on the outskirsts of Seville, if the corporal would only let her escape. Tempted, José unties her. She runs for it right when Zuniga is returning and escapes, which greatly enrages the lieutenant, who blames the corporal and orders his arrest.

    Act II

    Night falls and we encounter Carmen enjoying herself with her gypsy friends Frasquita and Mercédès at Lillas Pastia's tavern. They sing and dance, and soldiers are there flirting with them, lead by none other than Zuniga himself, who tries to woo Carmen by excusing himself for trying to have her arrested. Carmen is thrilled to learn that Don José is being released from jail. They are interrupted by the famous toreador Escamillo, who is hailed by the crowd and sings of his skills in the bullfighting ring. Escamillo feels attracted to Carmen who however dismisses him with indifference. He vows to returning and to try harder to win her attention. Zuniga and his men leave with the toreador.

    Once the soldiers are out, Lillas Pastias tells Frasquita that smugglers Dancaïro and Remendado have returned and need the women's help to bring contraband from Gibraltar. Carmen however says she will not join them, because she is in love and is waiting for Don José. The corporal is heard approaching, and Dancaïro suggests that Carmen enlist him too in the smuggling trade.

    Don José comes in and is jealous when he learns that Zuniga was pursuing Carmen. She calms him down by dancing for him. A bugle call is heard in the distance, summoning the troops back to the barracks. Don José is filled with a sense of duty and declares that he must leave. Carmen is furious and ridicules him, blaming herself for having counted on his love.

    The corporal produces the acacia she had given him, and professes his love for her, saying that the flower kept his hopes alive while he was in prison. She then makes her pitch for him to join the smugglers. He recoils at being a deserter and prepares to leave. Zuniga comes back, which totally changes the equation for José. Blinded by jealousy, he draws his sword on Zuniga. Carmen calls for help, and Dancaïro and Remendado come running and overpower Zuniga, who is tied up to a chair. Don José realizes that he has gone too far already and has no other choice but joining the smugglers. Carmen rejoices and assures him that he'll love the carefree life of the gypsies.

    Act III

    Several months later, we encounter the smugglers working their trade in the mountains. Dancaïro and Remendado leave to scout the next town. Things haven't turned out so well for Don José, since Carmen seems to have tired of him and to be willing to move on to the arms of someone else. He whines that his mother lives nearby and Carmen tells him that he should just return home. He flies into a jealous rage. Frasquita and Mercédès try to defuse the tension, bringing out tarot cards to read their fortunes. Carmen is shocked to learn that what the cards have in stock for her is death.

    The smugglers return, asking for the women's help to distract some customs guards. José is left behind to guard the loot. Meanwhile Micaëla is seem roaming the mountains with a guide, who doesn't want to go any further. She says she will proceed on her own. She prays to God for strength. She infiltrates into the smuggler's camp and startles Don José who fires his weapon. She hides unharmed, but the ex-corporal's shot has narrowly missed the approaching Escamillo, who introduces himself to José, who initially befriends him, but gets upset as soon as he learns the reason for the toreador's visit: that he is looking for Carmen with whom he is in love. Don José challenges Escamillo to a knife fight. The later is a much better fighter but he trips and falls. When Don José is about to kill him, Carmen and the other gypsies come back and stop José from hurting the toreador. Escamillo invites all present to be his guests in his next bullfight in Seville.

    The smugglers find Micaëla in hiding, and she tells José that his mother is waiting for him, is dying, and wants to see him one last time. With Carmen's encouragement (which again unsettles José) he agrees with leaving with the country girl, not before saying to Carmen that their affair is not over. Once he leaves, Carmen dreamily turns her attention to the distant sound of Escamillo's voice singing in his way back to the city.

    Act IV

    We are now outside the bullfighting arena in Seville. The ceremonial procession to the bullring ensues, and we see a radiant Carmen on the arms of the toreador. Frasquita and Mercédès have learned that Don José is in town hiding from the army (they are after him as a deserter). They warn Carmen that the ex-corporal is coming and might try to harm her. Carmen dismisses their concerns and sends them into the arena. She stays behind, alone in the square, ready to confront José. He comes out of the shadows and begs her to accept the inevitability of her love. She fiercely disagrees, reaffirms her independence, and say that they are finished. Carmen tries to go back to the arena but is blocked by José who wants to know if she has become the toreador's lover. She confirms, and adds that not even the threat of death will make her deny her love for Escamillo. She further humiliates him by hurling at his face the ring that he had given her. Blinded by rage and jealousy, José stabs Carmen to death, then collapses over her body, admitting his guilt and asking to be arrested, while professing one last time his love for her.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Carmen: Genesis of the Opera started by Almaviva View original post

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