Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Brilliance of Bizet's Carmen

The opportunity to perform in Georges Bizet's Carmen in any capacity is an experience to cherish. Bizet was a genius, who like Mozart, died way before his time. His final opera Carmen is one of the most popular operas in the repertory. However this was not the case until several years after the first performance. This is a tragedy in a way because Bizet died three months to the day after the opera was first performed, so he never experienced the operas popularity while he was among the living. This is in part because people disliked the Wagnerian qualities of the opera, and thought that the orchestra played too big of a role. What is striking to me is that famous people of the day including composers such as Brahms, Saint-Seans, Tchaikovksy, and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought highly of Carmen. Nietzsche saw it over twenty times, and thought the world of it. He wrote about how listening to Carmen made him a better man, musician and listener. It does the same for me. However, I thought of that only after I read what Nietzsche wrote about the piece. I just cannot it any better then that. Bizet was only thirty seven years old when Carmen was premiered. The opera comique is where is was premiered. The opera comique wanted operas to be pleasant and have spoken dialogue, with no really big numbers. The first thing that was unusual about Carmen was that Carmen, the heroine is a lower class gypsy, who serves as a prostitute. Don Jose is a naive aristocratic soldier whose life is ruined because he takes Carmen seriously. Carmen likes him, and then moves on to Escamillo. Interestingly, Propser Merimee, who wrote the original story has it so that the towns people, workers in the cigarette factory, and others know about Carmen's reputation. Don Jose becomes so infatuated with Carmen, that he loses track of reality, and essentially loses his mind with jealousy. He becomes so jealous that he verbally and physically abuses her, and eventually kills her. Love sure can be a powerful thing when jealousy is involved. Having a sort of anti-heroine, and a stabbing at the end of the opera was not well received at the premiere. Bizet did not expect this, and it most likely contributed to the series of health problems that killed him. The opera comique withdrew the opera soon after Bizet's death, but as a few years went by Carmen became popular throughout the world. Today, it is one of the most popular operas of all time. Opera companies around the world are constantly putting on this show. Including the Opera Company of Philadelphia which I have the honor to be in. I have been continually listening to Carmen and getting something new out of it every time. Great works of art have that kind of unique affect on the listener or observer. Carmen is one of those magnificent works of art. The orchestration by Bizet is brilliant from beginning to end. He combines elements of Verdi and Wagner, yet he puts his own unique stamp on it. The orchestra either serves strictly to accompany, or it plays a larger role like in Wagner's operas. Bizet does use leitmotifs to identify certain characters and ideas. Carmen's is heard at the beginning of the opera during the overture, when she first enters before she utters a word, and at the end when she is killed. It is fantastic at the end. Don Jose has killed her, and the orchestra has this outpouring of emotion as he comes to his senses and realizes what he has done. I think we all have some understanding about how Don Jose feels as the opera goes a long, but not to the extreme of stabbing someone to death. Carmen just will not give him the time of day after Escamillo comes a long, and Don Jose absolutely refuses to accept that fact. Bizet gets the concepts of love and jealousy in Carmen like no other composers I have ever heard. Don Jose's mother, who we do not see wants Don Jose to marry the good girl, Micaela. Micaela is a pure soul, and talks to Don Jose about his mother in acts I and III. There is a theme for that, which she sings, indicating that Don Jose could be saved from having his life destroyed if he marries her. There is a strong message of hope when Micaela sings to him. However, the love he has for Carmen wins. Did I mention that love is a powerful thing? Micaela's aria in Act III sounds like Bellini or Verdi could have written it. The audience at the premiere did like this aria. However, they did not like Carmen's aria earlier in the act when she is dealt the card of death. I was listening to that aria back stage last night while we were rehearsing the show, and was struck by how it sounded like Mozart and Bach. It is just incredible. At the end of this aria the action continues without stopping. The two other ladies Frasquita and Mercedes start singing their charming song again attaca after the aria. The way Bizet constructs this is pure genius. Then there is Act IV where it could be a symphonic piece by itself. Georges Bizet was a great composer who luckily is getting the credit he deserves in the present time period.

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