Saturday, 12 December 2009

Carmen, the Opera

The French composer George Bizet wrote the music of the Opera Carmen in 1875 from a story written by Prosper Merimée and it has become one of the best known operas in the world and is also much loved. This week the Scala Milan opened it's new season 2009-10, this is one of the big events of the social calendar in Italy. The President of the Republic comes from Rome to preside opening night with special guests, usually the Head of State of a country, tickets for this special night usually sell around 1000 Euros a seat or more. It is broadcasted live on RAI television and every one watches.

This year the cast of Carmen featured a new sensation from the Republic of Georgia, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachveslishvili and also a new design and production by a famous theater producer from Sicily, Emma Dante called the new Spirit of the South (Italy) Dante had never produced an opera before and introduced many new concepts to her production of Carmen. Unfortunately for her, the Milan public, which can be very harsh booed her loudly off the stage, live on RAI Television in front of the President of the Italian Republic, the venerable Giorgio Napolitano and the world watching. It was painful and sad for her and you could see on Dante's face how she was on the verge of tears. Even the European ARTE TV channel presenter did not know what to say at this very vocal, loud and persistent criticism. But it happens in Italy, Opera is deadly serious business and be prepared to be attacked if you displease the public, there is no forgiveness. The Conductor, Maestro David Bareboim was visibly angry at the reaction of the audience, but the public is master, right or wrong. Other singer were Jonas Kaufmann (Germany) as Don José and Ervin Schrott (Uruguay) as Escamillo. I did not like the production either as being to Broadway, however it did one thing that of illustrating how all the characters are prisoners of their world.

You often hear from different people in the opera world how Carmen, the character is a free women, how she does what she wants, she is a wild Gypsy, she chooses the men she wants etc... some of the Arias give this impression but it is all bravado. Carmen is a factory worker, a brawler, a leader in her group, the tough girl who throws her weight around, but all this is constrained by the little world she lives in, a very limited confining world, she is poor and belongs to this under world of beggars and thieves. In the Seville of her time, Carmen would have been held in contempt by society, there was no social upward mobility and she was condemn to live in poverty, dreaming of a better life.

What liberty does she have really, not economic, not as a women in a repressive society where people like her are kept down. She sleeps around, we are told, but is this true or is it part of the prejudices and gossip of the society around her, who assigns her this role, or does she, in the hope of catching a rich lover someone who might bring her up in the world, Don José as a the soldier is a possible good catch for her and then Escamillo a far better one. But all this is for naught, she is oblivious to the danger of rejecting male dominance, of not accepting her position as a subordinate and for this she is brutally murdered in the street.

As for the 2 other characters in this opera, Don José the lowly officer soldier, he too is in a low social position, he has an elderly mother who calls for him from her death bed but he ignores her, he is a bad son, something Seville society would frown upon, he lacks judgement, is dissolute and immature, he also has a poor image of himself as a man and needs to assert his manhood by murdering Carmen because she rejects him for Escamillo. Don José is arrested after the murder and being an army deserter, it ends badly for him too.

As for Escamillo, he is the super star, a bullfighter, he has fame and money, for him Carmen is a play thing nothing more and he despise Don José as no good, again a prize winning bullfighter had in Seville a much higher profile than a poor soldier. Escamillo in this love trio will do better because of his status in society, but his job brings him face to face with death everyday in the ring, the bull does not always loose.

I do not see love in this opera, the characters do not love each other, they are posturing, feeding off each others insecurities, they know that theirs is not a pretty life. So you have sex and lust and people running after illusions. This production by Emma Dante had a very gritty side to it, it was not pretty, the music of Bizet is beautiful but tragic with a very sad ending.

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