There are few operas whose music has so fully saturated pop culture as Carmen. The melodies of its Toreador Song and Habanera have been used and re-used endlessly, even beyond the countless recordings made of the opera itself. Composer Georges Bizet certainly would be vindicated to know this; the opera was panned when it premiered in 1874, by critics who disapproved of the characters’ immorality or Bizet’s orchestration, which does not privilege the voice as the dominant musical force. He was compared—unflatteringly—to Wagner, who was unsurprisingly a fan of Carmen.
Bizet claimed bitterly that these bourgeois critics completely missed the point, and he was right. He died a little over a year after the premiere, at the age of 37, still brokenhearted by the rejection. His work would fall into relative obscurity for decades, so even Bizet’s more longer-lived contemporaries might have been surprised to see the popular appeal that Carmen now enjoys.
In a way, it was fitting that Carmen should face such scorn. The story at its center is less a love story, and more a study in the collisions of two irreconcilable forces, as it was with Bizet and the tastemakers of his time. In the opera, the lawless but demanding passion of Carmen is at odds with the duty-bound equivocations of Don José. And in the real world, Bizet’s desire to unite these compelling but fatally flawed figures on stage proved too heterodox for an audience that preferred heroines virtuous and heroes forthright. For indeed, Carmen is still the heroine in her own right, and she and Bizet both were undone by men who hide their lack of spirit behind the pretense of authority.
But not today. The immorality of the characters was not a stumbling block for 20th century audiences, nor for us today. And when a performance of Carmen is done right, the attraction between these irreconcilable figures and their eventual destruction is a terrible beauty. Fortunately, Seattle Opera‘s latest production gets it right under the direction of Paul Curran.
The End of Carmen
Even for first-time viewers, the murderous end of Carmen comes as no surprise. It’s a tragic opera; someone’s gotta die, and it’s always one or both of the lead lovers. But long-time viewers have been surprised in recent years by productions that have changed the ending.
In the original telling, José stabs Carmen to death. To some who saw this at the time of its premiere, this was a just punishment for her iniquity—and a trope. The best hope for fallen women in opera is to die with some grace, even repentance. Violetta of La Traviata is the most salient example, but whereas the courtesan Violetta lived among the monied class as a seductress, Carmen is entirely an outsider—a criminal, a sorceress, a “Gypsy.” She does not die repentant; she is defiantly herself to the end, something her murderer Don José will never be.
Seattle Opera takes pains to render references to Carmen’s Roma heritage as “Bohemian,” rather than the Gypsy slur. But they do not go so far as to let one forget that this was an entire class of people barely tolerated by the rooted communities to which they lived adjacent. (I say “was,” but it remains the case in many countries.) Indeed, Carmen’s compatriots are unrepentant criminals, and she herself is a violent thief. Furthermore, she does nothing to dispel notions that she is something of a witch, whose seductive powers border on the supernatural.
But do they really? The soldiers that fawn over her and the other factory girls would be easy prey. The seemingly virtuous Don José—already beloved by the angelic and provincial Micaëla—appears at first to be the wrong target for Carmen’s advances. That is, of course, why she chooses him; one cannot conquer what is already too willing. But José is weak…weak, weak, weak. He has enlisted as a soldier and espouses filial duty for his mother, who desires to see him wed Micaëla, whom he also professes to love.
And yet, he cannot answer for himself why he has accepted these obligations, why he should honor them and thus preserve his own honor. Thus, when temptation comes, he crumbles. The piggish guards, including the Lieutenant, Zuniga, are consistent to the extent that they stick to the rules, even if they are morally bereft. José is the hollow suit that would claim authority without moral consistency. Carmen at first seems to believe that he has some substance, squandered by his false allegiances. Her code of freedom, self-sufficiency, and passionate love might set him “free,” but she has her own flaws: She is an egoist who lacks mercy and empathy and ends up being a poor teacher to an even poorer student.
Thus, in some recent versions, it is not unbelievable when the script is flipped and Carmen kills Don José, or she runs herself through on his knife, proving her own agency and his cowardice in the most brutal way possible. These interpretations also pull Carmen out of that convention of the genre, to victimize the woman, guilty or not. I’ll not say which ending Seattle Opera chooses, as this may, in fact, restore some suspense to the plot (if one doesn’t read the liner notes). I will simply say that their choices are all quite sound in this production.
Carmen in Seattle
Carmen‘s ubiquity leads some directors to go unconventional routes. But novelty only goes so far, of course, and it does not figure into my checklist for a successful production of Carmen. Obviously, all operas require strong singers and musicians, good blocking, and coherent set and costume designs. Seattle Opera ticks all those boxes with this production, which director Paul Curran places in Franco’s Spain rather than Bizet’s century. Bonus points can be awarded for particularly good fight choreography, but no points are awarded this round.
Short and subjective as it may be, my list of requirements for Carmen is as follows:
1) There MUST be real chemistry on stage between Carmen and Don José.
2) Micaëla, in her few scenes, must embody everything that Carmen is not.
3) Escamillo, in his few scenes, must embody everything that Don José is not.
That’s trickier than it sounds, but this cast was up to the task. Zanda Švēde as Carmen didn’t deliver my favorite rendition of the Habanera, BUT she was an excellent lead. Meanwhile, Don José was played by Adam Smith, who is a talented singer and—what we call in academic parlance—smoking hot. They made sense together on stage, even when they are at each other’s throats. And when they were at each other’s other parts, it never reached the point of vulgarity.
The earthy mezzo of Carmen finds its vocal contrast in the clear soprano of Micaëla, played by Emily Dorn, who is simply seraphic on stage. The complexity of Micaëla’s character is often underestimated. In her first on-stage encounter with Don José, she relates the words of his mother and passes a kiss to him from her. Of course, at that moment, Micaëla herself is stealing a kiss, but she is a surrogate for the mother (whom we never see). This is not an Oedipal moment. Rather, in Micaëla one sees simultaneously a maternal love and a naive adoration, the two kinds of love that Don José ultimately shuns in pursuit of Carmen’s carnality.
There is a duality even in this, as Micaëla is a naive performer, whereas Carmen is a trained one. She is a singer, even within the setting of the opera, and a manipulator. And yet in their own ways, Micaëla and she are both true to themselves. Micaëla is ever true to her sense of honor and duty (what José lacks), while Carmen’s only allegiance is to herself.
Meanwhile, the torero Escamillo is the devil-may-care, egoistic match for Carmen. Played with just enough swagger by Rodion Pogossov (in Greaser regalia in Act II), he and she both accept the fickleness of fate and their own role in tempting it. Their two most famous numbers mentioned at the outset of this article, are actually prophetic. Escamillo’s Toreador Song (“Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre“) is an ode to the fight for its own sake, which details the death of a picador and the ring full of blood, ambiguously uniting love and death in its repeated claim “that a dark eye is watching you, and love is waiting for you, Toreador…”
Meanwhile, love is a wild bird in the Habanera, one that almost guarantees feelings are never truly reciprocal. And, because she knows she is cruel, and even seems to revel in her cruelty and that of the love she experiences, Carmen warns all potential lovers: Stand guard. Whether she loves you, or you love her…stand guard! It is no coincidence that the chorus of Escamillo’s song exhorts the Toreador to be on guard, as well.
And it is thus inevitable in Bizet’s vision that Carmen finds herself in front of the bullfighting ring itself, where she goads her own bull, lets down her guard, and is gored by him—that stupid, confused animal that never really stood a chance. Carmen and Escamillo both have their dance of death and exult in it. José has only his blood-drenched cowardice in the end.
Seattle Opera delivers that punch to the gut with all the force that it is due. Bizet would be proud to know Carmen has become so beloved, and I think that he would also approve of this interpretation, down to its last bitter note.
Featured image by Phillip Newton.