Bizet’s Carmen – a work of genius that will never fade

Jonas Kaufmann and Elina Garanca in Carmen

There have many great opera performances that I have been lucky to see in my life but, inevitably, many that I’ve missed too. One of them was Bizet’s Carmen with the delectable Latvian mezzo soprano Elina Garanca as the erotically liberated Spanish gypsy, Carmen and the currently unmatchable in this role and equally personable German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Don José, the simple country boy soldier who stands no chance once he has tasted the delights of his seductress. I suspect the air sizzled in Bavaria just over two years ago when this one of the most performed and most popular of operas proved that after all these years, it is still very much alive.

George Bizet (1838-1875)

I have reached the year 1875 in my stately progress through the history of classical music hoping to hear the music with just a hint of historical accuracy if I listen to each piece in chronological order whilst trying to exclude memories of future music no matter how well known. 1875 has already revived my admiration for that old war horse Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and it was wonderful to hear it with all the dust of time brushed from its glossy surfaces. So too with Carmen – a work that has stayed new, original and influential even if its first audiences failed to recognise what had just been born. Poor old George Bizet too, still a young man but with a fatal heart condition, failed to live long enough to see his masterpiece triumph, as it did later that same year of its premiere but, sadly, three months after the composer’s death at the age of 38.

It is often said that, without Carmen, the future of opera would have been altogether different, and it is undoubtedly true that the Italian realist, ‘verismo,” composers, Puccini (Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Tosca) Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana)  and Leoncavallo (Pagliacci), owe Monsieur Bizet an enormous debt for his opera about working class, sexually vibrant and realistically drawn lovers. The American musical and world cinema too owe more than a nodding thank you to Carmen.

The opera is not just the beginning of a new fashion or merely the most successful French opera of the 19th Century, it is, more than anything else, a great work of art. Very few operas succeed in marrying character, drama and music into a vivid theatrical experience. To find other great examples, we have to look to the Mozart and Verdi of, amongst other works The Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata. There too we are immersed in the humanity and reality of the principal characters – not just in the vocal parts but in the precisely characterised orchestration. Bizet’s orchestra holds our hand throughout the four acts forcing us to watch the main characters’ lives fall apart with tragic inevitablilty.

A popular example of the marriage of character and music in opera is Figaro’s entrance aria in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Everyone knows that piece with its repeated cries of ‘Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!’ and, if they ever saw the opera in the theatre, they would be surprized how well they already knew Rossini’s  lively Sevillian barber.

As with Figaro’s entrance, so with Carmen’s – we and the history of opera are never the same again after that woman rushes onto the stage with her sexy, sultry song about love, the rebellious bird that you can never catch. Very few operas grab you and warn you with such immediacy right from the start.

Sadly, not from the Bavarian production mentioned above but the recent Metropolitan Opera in New York, here is the irresistible Elina Gavanca but without Herr Kaufmann (the Don José is Kaufmann’s predecessor as the principle interpreter of this role, the chubbily endearing Roberto Alagna) :

Just as we get to actually know Carmen, not just as a sexual being but as a vulnerable fatalist, so we know Don José, the average guy with a depth of feeling that frightens even himself. Bizet has created one of the most vivid depictions of uncontrollable and tragic love in an operatic repertoire that specialises in such things. Jonas Kaufmann is blessed with the voice to deliver not just the rage and the passion but the tenderness too. Here he is in a production from La Scala, Milan:

One of the problems of very popular operatic music is that it can become, like Rossini’s Figaro, almost too popular for us to appreciate in its natural context. This is also true of Carmen’s most famous tune, the inevitable and ubiquitous Toreador Song. Bizet described it as ‘urdure’ – a polite word for shit – but want he really meant was that it illustrates the brashly extrovert character that it portrays, the other major role in the opera, the toreador himself, Escamillo. Just as Carmen defines herself from her very first entrance, so too does Escamillo. He knows, like we know, that he can have anyone that he chooses. He may be singing about a bull fight but, no one is fooled, this is all about sexual conquest.The American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen knows exactly how to use the famous melody as pure drama in this raunchy Dutch production. If you have never been to see the opera in the theatre and think that it is all cliché and corny tunes, then think again and go. Carmen is one of the wonders of theatre and, one day I hope, I will see a production with these three, perfectly cast, singers in the principal roles.

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