Friday, May 21, 2021

The Exotic and the Familiar:

Cultural Contrast in Bizet’s Carmen at the Opéra-Comique

Zanda Švēde (Carmen) in Seattle Opera's Carmen. Sunny Martini photo

By Judy Tsou

In 1872, when Georges Bizet chose Prosper Mérimée’s infamous novella Carmen as the subject of his upcoming opera for the Opéra-Comique, the reaction was swift from Adolphe de Leuven, one of the producers: “Carmen! The Carmen of Mérimée? Wasn’t she murdered by her lover? And the underworld of thieves, gypsies, cigarette girls—at the Opéra-Comique, the theater of families or wedding parties? You would put the public to flight. No, no impossible!” We know that Bizet got his way and de Leuven eventually resigned. The subject was risqué, especially for the Opéra-Comique, which by the 1870s had become increasingly conservative. The audience expected G-rated “rom-com” operas.

The librettist, Ludovic Halévy, attempted to appease the producers and offered the following remedies: a tamer Carmen (did not happen), a good-girl foil to Carmen (Micaëla), a heroic male character (Escamillo, the bullfighter) in place of the original narrator, gypsies as comedians (not really), and Carmen’s death “glossed over at the very end of the opera [not! ], in a holiday atmosphere [yes], with a parade [before the murder], a ballet [no], a joyful fanfare [sort of].Bizet and Halévy then set to work by painting his characters in two columns: the exotic versus the appeasing normative characters. In the exotic column is Carmen and her gypsy friends—Frasquita, Mercédès, and the smugglers. The normative column includes the dragoons, Micaëla, and Escamillo. In addition, Bizet endowed the normative characters with French sensibilities, betting on the idea of French nationalism to appeal to the conservative audience.

The normative yardstick was quickly set at the beginning of the opera. The chorus of Spanish soldiers reminds us in the refrain, “What funny people these are!” (Drôles de gens que ces gens là!), immediately bringing the audience into the point of view of the soldiers, the regular people. Bizet also used the style of everyday French music in the soldiers’ chorus; the audience at the time would recognize it. This beginning draws a “them” and “us” line in the opera.

Next is the introduction of Micaëla, the normative good girl, before Carmen’s entrance. Micaëla’s soft orchestral introduction is a dainty descending line, with lingering notes exuding the hesitation of a wide-eyed country girl coming into the big city (Seville). This girl-next-door is sent by corporal Don José’s mother. Micaëla dutifully gives José the letter, the money, and a kiss from his mother. She reveals that she went to church with his mother, which indicates her piety. The music supports this with the insertion of an “Amen cadence,” the harmonies signaling the end of a hymn. This is a typical female character in the Opéra-Comique: pure, humble, and pious.

Carmen’s entrance is the diametrical opposite of Micaëla’s. Carmen’s entrance has confidence, and the men’s line, “Mais nous ne voyons pas la Carmencita?” (But why do we not see Carmencita?), creates anticipation. Her entrance is marked by a quick ascending line followed by the fate motive; the music is fast and loud. This is followed by her slinky habanera, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird); this aria defines Carmen’s exoticism and wild licentiousness. The rhythm is in a tug-and-pull, proffering and withholding love toward her admirers. The melody is a descent with serpentine twists and turns and teasing notes. The text expounds her autobiographical philosophy of love and life unfettered by boundaries. The original tune (El Arreglito) is by Basque composer Sebastian Yradier (1809-1865) which used the popular habanera rhythm from Havana. Thus, Bizet’s sound of the gypsies is not ethnically authentic; it is Spanish Basque with a Cuban touch. This song was likely to have been performed in cabarets and other popular music venues, a “foreign” genre to operas. In addition to the Basque song, Bizet included cabaret and other popular music, modal sounds of the Middle East, and Spanish flamenco to paint the exotic Carmen.

The non-specific ethnicity could be a mix: Near the end of Act 1, Carmen sings a Seguidilla that evokes the Middle East more than Spain. In Act 2, the “Gypsy Song” resembles Romany music but has a Spanish flamenco lick in the cabaret music. The text in the “Gypsy Song” is intended to show the effect of the gypsies’ magic: arousing sensual passion and inebriation, which is reflected in the orchestral frenzy at the end of the piece. Even though this music sounds like opera to us, Opéra-Comique audience would have heard it as foreign and low-class.

Another “exotic” element is Bizet’s ominous five-note fate motive that is introduced in the last section of the Prelude to the opera. This motive is connected to the gypsy’s fate and specifically, Carmen. It evokes the Middle East and is accompanied by the foreboding violin tremolos. It marks doom and the fateful relationship between Carmen and Don José. This motive appears before Carmen’s entrance (Act 1); before Don José’s love song, “The Flower Song” (Act 2); when the gypsies were telling fortunes (Act 3)—a stereotypical representation of the gypsies; and at the final scene where Don José kills Carmen (Act 4). In fact, the motive appears throughout the opera in different guises to signify bad omens.

In addition to Micaëla, Escamillo is the other normative character. He is gentlemanly, cool, and calm, like a hero of the Opéra-Comique. Escamillo’s stability is most obvious in his music. His signature “Toreador Song” is straightforward. The hymn-like duet in Act 4 between Escamillo and Carmen shows a tranquility that is lacking in the tempestuous relationship between Carmen and Don José. Escamillo and Carmen sing each other’s music and eventually sing in perfect harmony, showing that their thoughts are one. This kind of relationship met the Bourgeoisie expectations, unlike that of Don José and Carmen’s.

Bizet and his librettists set out to write an opera for the French middle class by creating sympathetic characters that conformed to the French nationalist ideal. On the other hand, Bizet employed every exotic tool, no matter the origin, to mark the “other” characters. Ultimately, the Parisians panned the premiere (March 1875), but it was not unsuccessful; Carmen ran for 47 more performances at the Opéra-Comique. The re-premiere in Vienna in October 1875, with minor revisions by Ernest Guiraud (the version on which our performance is based) was a success and won its place in the opera canon. Unfortunately, Bizet did not live to see the unqualified success of Carmen.

Judy Tsou is Head emeritus of the Music Library and affiliate assistant professor of music history at the University of Washington. Her research interests include the intersection of race and gender in operas and musical theater.

She has published in both music librarianship and musicology, including “Composing Racial Difference in Madama Butterfly,” in Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship (Cambridge University Press, 2015); she co-edited the prize-winning collection Cecilia Reclaimed (1994), and edited over 200 articles for the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music (2013). She has been invited to present her work at universities around the world, including Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Seoul, Shanghai, Taiwan, and in the U.S. She serves as co-chair of the Committee on Gender and Race (2016-2018) and chaired the Committee on the Status of Women and other committees at AMS. She has been elected Vice-President of the AMS and will serve a two-year term beginning 2018. 

She earned her M.I.L.S. degree at the University of Michigan and an M.A. degree at Columbia University.

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