Carmen Smokes Up The Met! – Part II

Dear Readers:

Continuing with my review of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD production of Carmen – which I watched in a movie theater on Saturday February 2.  And, as always, felt so grateful that the Met management makes these great productions available to the broad public.  And at a reasonable price too:  the ticket to the cinema version is only about $25 bucks, considerably cheaper than a ticket to the theater.  Plus, you can eat popcorn while you’re watching!

In my previous post I discussed the source material, the novella by French writer Prosper Mérimée. His story is considerably more gritty and “realistic” than the toned-down opera libretto.  Which, in truth, is quite ridiculous in many ways.  But don’t blame Bizet for that, he was under a lot of constraints.  French “respectable” society would not have accepted a story in which everybody is a criminal, and in which the promiscuous female lead is not actually such a huge Jezebel seductress.  This interesting essay explains how Bizet’s librettists softened the story to make  Don José less criminal (more like the sappy victim of the femme fatale), and invented the character of Michaëla as a “virtuous girl” to contrast her with the un-virtuous and amoral Carmen:

The librettists turned Carmen into a seductress and femme fatale.

The adaptation of the Mérimée novella focused on its two main characters – Carmen, steadfast in her personal moral code of self-reliance, freedom, shifting loyalty and fatalism, and Don José, buffeted by blind passion. Yet, to temper the story to meet audience expectations, they [the 2 librettists Meilhac and Halévy] simplified the structure into a linear narrative progression, converted Don José from an unsavory bandit to a naïf, boosted Carmen’s sensual drive, eliminated her evil husband altogether, promoted the picador Lucas to a bullfighter rival Escamillo, and added a wholly new character – Michaëla, Don José’s loyal virginal hometown sweetheart – as a foil to Carmen’s coarse savvy and flighty wanderlust. While commercially astute, the changes only barely edged the story toward respectability.

Kurzak and Alagna are a married couple, in real life.

In changing the story so radically, they basically ruined it.  A modern person, even somebody who didn’t read the original work can tell, almost at first glance, that Michaëla does not belong in this story.  A Basque peasant girl, a virgin, completely devoted to her future mother-in-law; who is not afraid to wander all over Spain by herself to find her man; even wandering into police posts filled with horny sexual harassers; not to mention mountainous smuggler lairs filled with cutthroat bandits.  Come on, guys, pull the other one!  And don’t even get me started on the mountain lair situation — this is supposed to be a top-secret smugglers camp, but everybody and their grandmother (literally) seems to know how to get there.  The bandits can barely even start to count their loot before random people start popping in: Michaëla in search of her fiancé; followed shortly by the bullfighter Escamillo, looking for Carmen.  If these people know how to get there, then surely the police do as well(?!)

Desperate to cover up just how fake this Michaëla character is, Bizet wrote for her some of his best music, and it is a coveted role for any mezzo wanting to show off her vocal virtuosity.  In this production, the role was sung by delightful Polish mezzo Aleksandra Kurzak.  Who — in real life, is the wife of our Don José, French tenor Robert Alagna!  In a backstage interview, Kurzak joked how, in this production, Michaëla wins in the end:  She defeats Carman and gets to take Don José home after the show!  That was pretty funny and underscores what great personalities these world-class singers possess — offstage they all seem quite charming.

Carmen’s Havana Rebel Bird Song

Despite the ludicrous libretto, “Carmen” is still one of the world’s masterpieces of tragic opera.  Why?  Because of the music, duh!  Even people who have never seen the opera, can hum the two most famous “tunes”, namely Carmen’s “Habanera” song, and Escamillo’s “Toreador” song.  In both cases, these signature tunes are the first things we hear out of the mouths of the singers.  In other words, the singer has to walk onto the stage without a warm-up, perform a crazy-famous song that the audience knows and expects greatness from, and bat it out of the park.  Only singers with balls of steel should attempt this feat.

In Spanish, “habanera” simply means “Havanan”, in other words a type of dance performed in Cuba.  “A dance in slow duple time.”  There is a rhythmic beat to it, preferably done with castanets.  As Carmen’s signature tune, the song encapsulates her restless, erotic nature.  The lyrics are brilliant, funny and profound.  They show Carmen as a tease, but also hint at her fatalistic philosophy:

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser,
Et c’est bien in vain qu’on l’appelle
S’il lui convient de refuser.
Rien n’y fait, menace ou prière.
L’un parle bien, l’autre se tait.
Et c’est l’autre que je préfère.
Il n’a rien dit mais il me plait.
L’amour! L’amour! L’amour! L’amour!L’amour est enfant de Bohême,
Il n’a jamais jamais connu de loi.
Si tou ne m’aimes pas, je t’aime.
Si je t’aime, prends garde à toi!
Si tou ne m’aimes pas, si tou ne m’aimes pas, je t’aime,
Mais si je t’aime, si je t’aime, prends garde à toi!L’oiseau que tu croyais surprendere
Battit d’aile et s’envola.
L’amour est loin, tu peux l’attendre.
Tu ne l’attends pas, il est là.
Tout atour de toi, vite vite,
Il vient, s’en va, puis il revient.
Tu crois le tenir, il t’evite.
Tu crois l’eviter, il te tient.L’amour! L’amour! L’amour! L’amour!
L’amour est enfant de Bohême,
Il n’a jamais jamais connu de loi.
Si tou ne m’aimes pas, je t’aime.
Si je t’aime, prends garde à toi!
Si tou ne m’aimes pas, si tou ne m’aimes pas, je t’aime,
Mais si je t’aime, si je t’aime,
prends garde à toi!
Love is a rebellious bird
that nobody can tame,
and you call him quite in vain
if it suits him not to come.
Nothing helps, neither threat nor prayer.
One man talks well, the other’s mum;
it’s the other one that I prefer.
He’s silent but I like his looks.
Love! Love! Love! Love!
Love is a gypsy’s child,
it has never, ever, known a law;
love me not, then I love you;
if I love you, you’d best beware!The bird you thought you had caught
beat its wings and flew away …
love stays away, you wait and wait;
when least expected, there it is!
All around you, swift, so swift,
it comes, it goes and then returns …
you think you hold it fast, it flees
you think you’re free, it holds you fast.
Love! Love! Love! Love!
Love is a gypsy’s child,
it has never, ever, known a law;
love me not, then I love you;
if I love you, you’d best beware!


[to be continued]

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