An insignificant novel gave birth to Bizet’s great opera, Carmen, second only to Puccini’s La Boheme among the world’s most popular operas. The novelist Prosper Merimee’ introduces the famous heroine with these words;
I heard some bystanders say, ‘Here comes the gitanella!’ Then I lifted up my eyes, and I saw her! It was that very Carmen you know. She was wearing a very short skirt, below which her white silk stockings—with more than one hole in them—and her dainty red morocco shoes, fastened with flame-colored ribbons, were clearly seen. She had thrown her mantilla back, to show her shoulders, and a great bunch of acacia that was thrust into her chemise. She had another acacia blossom in the corner of her mouth, and she walked along, swaying her hips, like a filly from the Cordova stud farm. In my country anybody who had seen a woman dressed in that fashion would have crossed himself…She had an answer for each and all, with her hand on her hip, as bold as the thorough gipsy she was. …She, like all women and cats, who won’t come if you call them, and do come if you don’t call them, stopped short in front of me, and spoke to me.
The libretto and lyrics were by Henri Meilhac (dialogue) and Ludovic Halevy (poetry and structure) . In composing the libretto they eliminated reference to two earlier murders committed by Don Jose and all references to Carmen’s husband. But they also added Carmen’s pals Frasquita and Mercedes, and replaced her picador lover Lucas, with the esteemed matador Escamillo. And to pacify the nervous theater owner, the innocent and chaste Micaela was added. The result is a lively opera sometimes called the female Don Giovanni. And like Don Giovanni, Carmen seems to have an infinite number of interpretations, even though, at first, it seemed the opera had died.
The opera’s March 1,1875 debut at Paris’ Opera Comique seems to have been, in retrospect, doomed. The Opera Comique was the home of middle-class entertainment where happy endings ruled.
The Director of Opera Comique, Adolphe de Leuven, quit the project because Bizet refused to let Carmen live at the end. Stage director Camille Du Locle thought the libretto vulgar and brutal, Carmen unsympathetic and immoral, and fought with Bizet throughout rehearsals. Only Celestine Galli-Marie, the original Carmen, had faith in the work.
After the first night Bizet’s opera was deemed to be a resounding failure. Critics found it too “Wagnerian” because, unbelievably, there were not enough melodies! In addition, everyone found the subject matter too shocking. Only Escamillo and Michaela were applauded because their characters most resembled those familiar to the Comique audience. Halvey summarized the audience’s response to Act 4 as “glacial”
Bizet became so depressed, that his chronic illnesses flared to the extent that he died three months later.
After Bizet’s shocking death, the opera’s dialogue was made into recitatives by Ernest Guiraud for the Vienna production of 1883. Austria’s more sophisticated audience and the new musical dialogue created a phenomenal success. The production was seen twenty times by Brahms. Wagner said of it, “Thank God – at last someone with an idea in his head for a change.”
The first Carmen, Celestine Galli – Marie (1840-1905), followed Merimee’s description, to set the traditional interpretation by revealing the kind of woman Bizet envisioned. Paul de Saint Victor wrote of Calli-Marie’s performance in his Soubies’ 44, “She is small and alluring, moves like a cat with an expression at once rebellious and full of mischief…There is something capricious, impudent about her.” She was also insistent. She made Bizet rewrite her opening aria thirteen times before she was satisfied. Her last performance of Carmen in Paris was in 1890 at age 50.
The Lyric Opera’s Carmen brings its own history with the cast. The Carmen, J’nai Bridges, is a Ryan Opera Center alumna, and Lyric audiences delight in her performance of Bizet’s masterpiece after seeing her as Elektra’s Second Maid, Amelia’s Maidservant, the Carmen of Bel Canto, Rusalka’s Second Wood Nymph, Parsifal’s Second Esquire, La Traviata’s Flora, Il Trovatore ‘s Inez, and Vlkastra in The Passenger. Many of us traveled to our local movie theater to see her Metropolitan Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten.
Bridges’ magisterial Carmen owes much to the actor-singer playing opposite her, the incomparable Charles Castronovo. Ever since his unforgettable Lensky in the 2017 Lyric Eugene Onegin Mr. Castronovo had been on our radar, most recently last year as Nemorino in Lyric’s The Elixir of Love. In between we marveled at his Alfredo at the Royal Opera House’s La Traviata opposite Ermolina Jaho and in the same opera house as Rodolfo in La Boheme opposite Sonya Yoncheva. One fact became indisputable: whomever is singing with Mr. Castronovo sings better than ever before. Golda Schultz, making her Lyric debut as Michaela knows the power of Catsronovo. She sang opposite him in a Metropolitan Opera production of The Magic Flute, broadcast live to the world.
With these three internationally celebrated singer/actors an exceptional Carmen should be the result.
And it was.
Great opera singers bring their churning imaginations to their roles, no matter how famous the roles may be. At best, they cue off of their partners to discover something new and fresh yet arising from a faithful understanding of the text. In this way every Carmen is a unique, custom-made creation by the particular Carmen and Don Jose of the production.
J’nai Bridges presented a Carmen who seemed bored with her life. She no longer found her coworkers lives of continuous flirtations and random sexual encounters enough. Like most bored young people, she started to act out, and encountered an equally bored Don Jose. She sensed she had met a kindred spirit.
Castronovo’s Don Jose is a man who seems to have enlisted in the army to escape his dull village life, dominated by an overbearing mother and his mother’s choice for his bride, the sweet but tedious Michaela.
Carmen, seeking to learn if Don Jose is interested in playing with her to break the monotony, throws a flower at his feet. He retrieves it and reveals himself ready to follow Carmen, a woman of freshness and excitement, to the ends of the earth. When Carmen discovers that he has a streak of jealousy, she begins their fatal game.
Bridges’ Carmen is on a quest for freedom from her humdrum existence. Unfortunately often one person’s freedom needs the other person’s denial of freedom to seem real. And so Bridges’ Carmen insists that Don Jose refuse his duty to join his platoon and instead follow her to the bandits’ mountain hideaway.
They meet at the cantina where Don Jose opens his heart to her. He has lived alone with his unexpressed desires and yearnings, afraid to share them with anyone. Yet he does share them with Carmen in the beautiful flower song, “La fleur que tie ma vrais jete”.
Carmen infuriates him by refusing to appreciate his offering of his heart. He raises his hand to strike her, as the relationship turns to one of gradually escalating physical abuse
Addicted to Carmen, Don Jose deserts the military to follow her to the mountain retreat. Carmen continues to toy with Don Jose, each time driving the young man further down a path to insanity. When Escamillo arrives, Carmen sizes him up as a stiff, and blows him off. Don Jose sees the rejection of the famous bull fighter as evidence that Carmen still loves him. He decides to intensifes his efforts to muscle herto that same realization. Mr. Castronovo proceeds to unfold a portrait of a man driven to insanity and murder by love. Carmen, still seeking freedom, even a freedom with Escamillio, follows the matador to the bull fight arena, hoping his glory and riches would serve to satisfy a lack of love.
The crazed Don Jose follows them. Alone with Carmen, he springs forth and attacks Carmen with both professions of love and angry physical demands that his love be reciprocated.
Desperate, Don Jose stabs Carmen, only to cradle her body as her life drains out. The moment has the overwhelming horrific overtones akin to the tragic moment Verdi’s Rigoletto rocks his dead daughter Gilda.
Together Bridges and Castronovo created a unique and thrilling telling of the Carmen and Don Jose relationship. I suspect the imaginative perfomers discovered this interpretation on their own, through the interplay of trial and error at rehearsal. The director’s ineptitude in so many of the other basic requirements of stage direction, suggest that such a brilliant conception of the relationship did not arise from her.
Aside from the two stars, the production is routine at best. The director, Marie Lambert-Le Bihen, forgoes any attempt to give the two stars applause evoking entrances their international status deserves. The director’s basic toolbox of techniques to create a grand entrance was ignored. Her favorite form of stage composition appeared to be the straight shoulder-to-shoulder line up of characters. Variety was limited to the length and number of lines on stage at any one moment. She was not helped by choreographer Stephanie Martinez whose Seguedilla to “Lstringes des sistres tintalent” at Lillas Pestia’s tavern had all the pizzaz of a junior high school sock hop. Likewise, the paeillo, the pr0cession to the bull fighting ring, rather that being the occasion for capital Madrid to display is pride with clerical and governmental pomp, was staged like a tawdry perp walk o fprovincial weirdos. This unseemly and undisciplined procession featured the manure shovel bearer with his shovel.
With the exception of Gold Schultz (Michaela), Ian Rucker (Morales), an Wm. Clay Thompson ( Zuniga) , the supporting players at best added nothing. Escamillo requires the manner and physical ego of a flamenco or tango dancer. Andrei Kymach (Escamillo) cannot deliver it.. Frasquita (Denis Velez) and Mercedes (Katherine DeYoung), usually Carmen’s dynamic duo, had everything but the dynamism. They were nearly unnoticeable when on stage.
Conductor Henrik Nanasi, kept the familiar score moving right along, though his love of the music found him too audibly humming along at times.
Despite the production’s numerous weaknesses, the Lyric’s Carmen must be seen for no other reason than to see J’nai Bridges and Charles Castronovo.
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