She was wearing a very short red skirt that showed her white silk stockings with more than one hole in them, and dainty little shoes of red morocco leather tied with flame-coloured ribbons. She had pulled her mantilla open to show off her shoulders and the big bouquet of cassia emerging from her blouse. She had a cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, too, and walked along swaying her hips like a filly from the Cordova stud farm. In my country, everyone would have started to make the sign of the cross on seeing a woman dressed like that. In Seville, everyone addressed her with some ribald comment on her alluring appearance; she replied to each one in turn, giving them a sidelong glance, her hand on her hip, as brazen as the true Gypsy she was.
Old books don’t get enough credit for pacing. One thinks of the lengthy childhoods of Jane Eyre and David Copperfield or the thousand pages of Clarissa, when Carmen, within 50 pages of its Hesperus Press edition, slides from seduction to smuggling to banditry to cold-blooded murder without missing a beat or slowing down past a few footnotes. One day a pretty girl bats her eyelashes at you and the next you’re smoking your last cigar. It’s an archetypal story, powerful in its simplicity and yet enigmatic like the best Greek tragedy.
The novella was first published in 1847 by literary dabbler Prosper Mérimée and reprinted by Hesperus Press in a fresh translation by Andrew Brown, padded out to slim but respectable book length by the addition of Mérimée’s less-known horror story ‘The Venus of Ille’ (which I will touch on in a separate review). It has gained enduring fame through Georges Bizet’s opera, which departs significantly from the original work.
The story centers around two characters: Carmen the gypsy and Don José, a Basque and an Old Christian soldier. José abides by the law when it suits him but although his Basque identity is a source of pride it does not carry with it a strong moral code and his fall from grace is far too swift to blame wholly on a femme fatale as he tries to do. Every bad outcome he lays at the feet of ill luck and Carmen’s influence. I was like a drunk. The grand, gory climax of the opera was portrayed as a crime of passion, masked by the cheering crowds at the nearby bullfight. Prosper Mérimée’s scenario is coldly premeditated, an ultimatum taken deep into an isolated wood. The Carmen of the libretto was a free spirit without any guiding light, seducing and discarding on a whim. Here José remarks: She was lying, sir; she always lied. I don’t know if that girl ever said a single true word in her life; but when she spoke, I believed her; I couldn’t help myself. Yet she tells the truth when she warns José away from her, promising she’s bad luck. Throughout the book Carmen does acknowledge a set of laws that are quite rigid – it is Spain’s bad luck that gypsy codes of honour and conduct directly oppose their own. She says matter-of-factly to José: “By our law I owed you nothing, since you’re a payllo.” [non gypsy]. And in the end she holds fast to that.
One major difference between Mérimée’s tale and modern moral conventions is that Carmen is not done to death by Spanish customs in an abuse of power but by a Basque gone wholly native. “You’re my rom and as such you have the right to kill your romi.” This is the law to which Carmen submits in the end, not of the land she’s made her home but of the people who share her blood. Don José follows those laws to avenge himself on his unfaithful wife and then returns to Spanish law to enact justice on himself – with Carmen buried he has no further need to ignore the morals of his countrymen and goes quietly to the fate she had predicted for him. The jacket copy says this is a tale of “ominous undertones that lurk beneath the facade of civilisation” but civilization, as represented by the Spanish laws and customs of the time, is operating just fine. They used to call them rogues for a reason.
So here’s Prosper Mérimée, a dabbler in the realm of fiction on the cusp of going on a 20-year hiatus with the form, playing effortlessly with morality, fate, freedom, self-assertion, self-destruction and other high-concept heavyweights and he wasn’t even a particularly good or serious writer. Certainly his most famous work does not put him at the level of a Hugo or a Flaubert. Such was the quality of the nineteenth century education system.
If Carmen and Don José are neither victims nor dashing rebels then their only virtue comes from their shared ability to look death in the eye uncowed. This doesn’t sound like much but if there’s one thing Western Civilization has always admired it’s the ability to die well. Christ and the martyrs, Socrates, Leonidas, Joan of Arc, Thomas More… Famous deaths, famous last words pepper our history books. Holding to one’s principles in the face of death is powerfully engrained in our culture. And so Carmen, defiant to the end, achieves a form of honour by her calm refusal of José. “You’re asking me for the impossible: I don’t love you any more; you still love me, and that’s why you want to kill me. I could easily still lie to you; but I really can’t be bothered. It’s all over between us. You’re my rom and as such you have the right to kill your romi; but Carmen will always be free. Calli she was born, and calli she will die … To love you again is out of the question. As for living with you, I don’t want to.”
And so evil undoes itself. Very philosophical (if evil is by its nature destructive than self-destruction is perhaps inevitable) but also rather pat. Carmen follows her private code to the doors of death and José submits quietly to the very laws he spurned for her sake. It’s all of a sudden neat and tidy, befitting a writer who thought fiction a rather frivolous medium.
But perhaps that’s not really the point. To a more modern pair of eyes than mine Carmen is the stuff of tragedy “where the recognition of otherness fails to lead to liberal acceptance and coexistence, but produces only catastrophe,” as Andrew Brown says in his introduction. After all, José takes on a gypsy life to win Carmen’s love but when he begs for the opposite in return Carmen would rather die. Harsh.
When Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy adapted the novella they had to simplify things. All of these concepts of personal conviction, identity and order are thrown out lest the audience be confused. José is made more sympathetic by the additions of Michaela, his socially approved sweetheart (if he’d only married her everything would have been alright) and a dying mother whose deathbed he does not forsake. Instead of killing a man in jealousy he is forced to flee when the gypsies intervene on his behalf in a fight with his superior lieutenant. Had a Hollywood writing committee made these calls the result would have been an intellectual debacle and the commercial appeal would have interfered with the film’s artistic credibility. But opera is quite a different beast where the weight lies so heavily with the music that the librettists’ simplifications may even have helped, clearing the board to make way for a purity of tone and emphasis. And all of their little adjustments were otherwise for naught: In 1875 the immorality on display was still seen as utterly shocking and the opera was derided by audience and critics alike.
If you’re in the market for a rendition of the opera you can’t go wrong with that conducted by Thomas Schippers (1930-1977) at the Grand Theatre de Geneve, 1963. Regina Resnik as Carmen, Mario Del Monaco as Don José, Tom Krause as the toreador Escamillo and Joan Sutherland as Michaela (not her most memorable role). Schippers had a keen sense of performance and could summon the maximum level of energy from his orchestra at breakneck tempos without sacrificing clarity, capturing the irrepressible joy inherent to the opera (and which Nietzsche commented on) without losing the menace that underlies it. He presented Carmen as something exciting and alive, not a museum piece. His rendition makes the opera immediate again, without resorting to casting gimmickry or modernism, relying on passion, on love. We can only regret his untimely death, with so many performances still ahead of the man.
Bizet also died too soon, and his was a double tragedy for he passed on shortly after Carmen‘s debut performance, when the world at large dismissed his work and he believed himself a failure. Not only that, his death was also a tragedy for France, as Carmen was poised to revolutionize the medium, breaking with many of the traditional elements of the opera-comique common to the time and paving the way for the verismo style that the Italians would soon get all the credit for. Who knows what Bizet could have written had he lived?
Of course, any opera can have slow parts when you don’t understand the language and Carmen has its share but it also has an abundance of melodicity, panoramic soundscapes and moments of profound tension that cut through the levity of gypsy life, as when Carmen’s famous song of love is followed by the uneasy “Carmen! sur tes pas” which, with its laughter and tragic strings seems to seal her fate in an instant. The one drawback to Schippers’ opera is that the booklet contains only act summaries, not the full libretto, so you’re on your own there.
Carmen is the most famous of the French operas and originated out of a Frenchman’s novella, but the tale is steeped in the unique cultures of Spain. To gain an indication of how the Spanish respond to their neighbour’s creation I watched the flamenco production of Carmen, performed by the Compania Antonio Gades. Gades (1936-2004) was responsible in the late seventies for the creation of the Spanish National Ballet. His choreography eliminated the signs of tourism and sterility from flamenco, saying in 1984 about his newly created Carmen: “Our dance has strength, it has real life. It is not an academic dance, where what is shown is virtually a study, a technique, some forms… But rather our dance is a vital thing; it is the dance of culture, through which the soul of an entire people is expressed.”
The sets are stripped down, with chairs and mirrors the major props. The women wear long skirts, Carmen (played by Vanesa Vento) a fierce red dress. The men, aside from Escamillo, are in ordinary attire. All that matters is the dance. The flamenco guitarists sit among the gypsies, accompanied by traditional flamenco singers whose harsh voices contrast with the pure tones of the opera numbers included (from the Schippers recording so they obviously agree with my assessment of it). The subject has lost all of its shock value and so sympathy cards can now be dispensed with – no Michaela in sight.
The first dancers we see are expressive; there is overt power in a female flamenco dancer: the passion and emotion juxtaposed by discipline and stamina, the seductiveness of the movements that are yet, by contemporary “standards” poetic and restrained. When Carmen appears her dance is more expressive still, earthy and dangerous. Her competition with a fellow woman in the cigar factory slowly builds up to the sudden strike of a knife, destroying her rival’s face in an instant (she’s not a nice person). Don José attempts to bring her to prison but all too soon his hand on her arm becomes her scarf around his neck and it is she who leads him. The company nails these sequences. They also alter the placement of Carmen’s famous love song to after the fight, changing it from an establishment of Carmen’s character to Carmen rewarding Don José’s fall from grace. No wonder the man would do anything to possess her. She is the ultimate femme fatale.
An interesting addition from Mérimée’s story is the return of Carmen’s gypsy husband and the card game at which José goads him to a fight (here done with canes like murderous Fred Astaires) that ends in the husband’s death and Carmen disgustedly casting aside her ring. There is cruelty to her gesture and to José’s thereafter as he becomes more stiff and sullen, asserting his will over her until the bitter end. Each scene is done with such intensity and such beautiful dancing that there is no fault to find. So it was rather crushing to me that they completely misinterpreted the Toreador song.
The Toreador song is such a splendid example of pageantry and power, explicitly anthemic, masculine and so melodically delightful that I would never have dreamed of seeing it played for laughs. Escamillo does not arrive to the tune of the song here; instead the gypsies stage a mock-bullfight with a fat man for the bull. Far be it from me to defend the practice of bullfighting and perhaps the scene was meant to criticize the blood sport but unfortunately the scene is as tied to the beloved opera song as the nominal subject matter: To deconstruct one is to damage the other.
It is a powerful performance nonetheless, an act of cultural preservation. This is Carmen for Spain, for flamenco and for Gades this was a matter of national pride:
“We have a set of extraordinary countries within Spain itself, each one with its own marvelous folklore and culture… We have dances that are as rich as the Basque dances, as rich as the Catalonian ones, the Aragonese ones, the Castilian ones, the Galician ones and many more. With a suitable cultural policy, with direction and a scientific flowchart, an endless number of splendid things could be done.” To Gades this was not even patriotism, this was “knowledge.” And it is knowledge that is available to all of us at any moment, one opera, one folk song, one painting, one reprinted book away from a vast cultural inheritance that is ancient and alive.
If I have succeeded in piquing your interest you can watch the complete performance of Gades’ Carmen on YouTube below: