This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Even in the capacious annals of France v. Music, our neighbours’ reaction to Georges Bizet’s Carmen in 1875 was a doozy. A first-nighter which ended with everyone hating everything resulted in history’s arsiest reviews, a curtailed run and the composer checking out (aged 36, really from a broken heart) three months later — after producing the most thrilling opera of the lot.
Now everyone pretends to be mortified by those sultry gypsies
There were extenuating circumstances for the ghastly audience, to be fair. The thing went on for over four hours with three intervals, those devilish devices for sapping the will to live, and the last act started after midnight. The Opéra-Comique was the venue for “respectable” shopkeepers and suchlike drones; imagine the Mail-ish tuttings as watches were furiously checked. No doubt the buses to their zonian hellholes had stopped by the time it finally wrapped up.
This was a crowd for whom Mamma Mia! would have been a bit challenging, and even though Carmen isn’t exactly Stockhausen, it went way over their little proto-Poujadiste heads.
Of course, within about five seconds of Bizet’s death, Carmen was a smash everywhere else, but 150 years later it feels like we’re still waiting for a staging spunky and punchy enough for this sexy whirlwind of the greatest showtunes ever written: Sousa-on-happy-dust overture, croonalong Toreador, Carmen’s stampy dances, swoony instrumentals, an orchestra giving off sparks as never before.
And though this month you can’t swing a cat in England without getting it tangled up in someone’s mantilla, we may have to wait a little longer yet. Opera North is touring an earnest effort which seeks a new milieu for Carmen on the US/Mex border in the Fifties, with our gal not so much the live-free-or-die temptress with a proper dose of chaud au cul, but a harried pole-dancing mum looking for a new daddy for her brat.
Those goulash productions tend to the Seville tourist-board view, albeit produced via the alarming swayings of Slavic matrons in the chorus. The last Covent Garden show tried something similar, adding a peculiar sort of petting zoo on stage, though sadly without any of the al fresco butchery so popular in actual Spain.
Now everyone pretends to be mortified by those sultry gypsies (but who wouldn’t kill for this kind of PR?), so we get stuff like the recent Aix production wherein José (as written, a dutiful squaddie unable to resist the lightning in Carmen’s eyes) becomes a regular modern-sicko guy undergoing anger-management therapy: fun at first, then mining the outer seams of silliness and producing, I might add, considerable anger in the viewer.
How to explain this mortifying spectacle of Carmen in production? With its spring-loaded dramaturgy, the precipitous descent from blithe sexiness and cards-on-the-table “Habanera”, to the whack of passion, obsession, murderous rage and the alarming “blood wedding” of the ending, it should be a cinch.
A pagan, smouldering landscape of sex and death
Naturally, opera singers can’t really do the copious dialogue of the original: this song-opera invented the musical 50 years before Showboat. By the 1890s it was claimed as a trailblazer for the Cav & Pag school — all those sobbing little Italians in clown-suits: a dreadful misreading of piece which is a jovial comedy for much of its length. Not quite everyone failed to notice the supernova they’d just witnessed: this blast of subtropical heat and sweat with its translucent scoring, its joy, melancholy and bloody colours was a reminder of what music might be, amid rivals dripping with Germanic gloom, Italian hysteria and racist, homoerotic French drivel.
Nietzsche, whom it drove to frenzy in violent reaction against his previous boyfriend Wagner, was crazy about it, as were calmer souls like Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Brahms. Yet nobody dared follow Bizet’s lead: Carmen remains a one-off, too hot to emulate.
Clearly it was asking for trouble to ridicule everything the frightful family-values audience held dear, with its vivid agitprop for promiscuous sex, blood sports, racial stereotyping and non-payment of taxes. “Please try not to let her die!” the theatre director wanly pleaded with the librettist, who waggishly responded with a strikingly candid onstage bloodbath.
Equally obviously, as with Così fan tutte, Madama Butterfly and the rest, it’s only a matter of time before it gets banned, especially as it adds newer mortal sins to its roster with its scorchio smoking ad, Carmen’s half-dressed cigar-factory sisters taking the world’s most ecstatic fag-break. Easy enough to write words that celebrate life, even the supercharged transgressive life of Carmen.
But Bizet did it with notes, created a pagan, smouldering landscape of sex and death in a way nobody had dreamed possible, music blazing with the same anarchic, boundless adoration of life as the tumbling stanzas of Byron’s Don Juan. Sprung from its prison, music made love and mayhem under the implacable sun.
Carmen isn’t some baleful German thing to enjoy in a darkened room with a bottle of whisky and a revolver: it needs to be seen (and heard) live for its proper effect, so however grim the stage show, best bite the bullet and catch it before the sun sets.
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