In November 1881 Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to his sister from Genoa: “The day before yesterday I heard ‘Carmen,’ an opera by a Frenchman named Bizet, and was thunderstruck! So strong, so impassioned, so graceful, so Southern!” He went to hear it again and was even more impressed:
It is the very soul of passion and seduction. In my opinion this work is worth a whole journey to Spain…I am, indeed, not far from thinking this is the best opera at present existing. So long as we live it will form an item in every European repertoire.
Seven years later, in The Case of Wagner, he wrote combatively that “music should be Mediterraneanized,” reneging on his early enthusiasm for the operas of Richard Wagner. Carmen became the standard for his crusade against Wagnerian solemnity.
In Carmen, first performed in Paris in 1875, Georges Bizet created a Mediterranean musical world in elegant French style. Spanish song and dance fascinated nineteenth-century Paris—the recent exhibition “Manet/Degas” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art included Manet’s The Spanish Singer, with which he made his name at the Paris Salon of 1861, and Lola de Valence (1862), a Spanish dancer posing as if she were also modeling for Bizet. Carmen is as much a dancer as a singer, swaying to Bizet’s Spanish rhythms, hypnotizing her infatuated soldier, Don José, with her castanets. The Metropolitan Opera’s new production, directed by Carrie Cracknell and premiered on New Year’s Eve, sets the opera in contemporary America, possibly in the vicinity of the Mexican border, where Latin rhythms would not be out of place.
Carmen is an entertainer. This is clear from her very first appearance, singing the erotically descending phrases of the “Habanera” and then the sinuous “Seguidilla” later in the first act. For Bizet, Carmen’s artistry is closely tied to her Andalusian origins and Roma identity. The “Habanera,” named for Havana, borrows its Afro-Cuban inflections from a piece by the Spanish Basque composer Sebastián Yradier, who had visited Cuba. In the Met production, Carmen begins the “Habanera” behind a wire fence, leaning against a huge truck parked alongside a munitions factory, and at the conclusion of the “Seguidilla,” after escaping arrest, she and her friends steal the truck and go on the road as arms smugglers.
Bizet set the second act in the inn of Lillas Pastia in Seville, where Carmen and her two best friends give a cabaret performance; the lyrics celebrate the “strange music” of the Roma—“ardent, crazy, fevered”—and reference Basque tambours and frenzied guitars. At the Met there is no Andalusian inn; the act takes place inside the trailer of the hijacked truck racing along the highway. It is a spectacular update, a cabaret in motion, and the twenty-seven-year-old mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina, dancing in denim short-shorts and shiny blue cowboy boots, handled every sensual ornamentation in Carmen’s vocal lines with youthful agility. Akhmetshina played Carmen not as the more usual worldly femme fatale but as a teenage rebel without a cause, which gave a different sense to the character’s recklessness, volatile sexuality, risky romances, and impulsive confrontations.1
In early January 1875 the Paris Opéra inaugurated its new theater, designed by Charles Garnier in the extravagant Beaux-Arts style. The opening night gala offered pieces by Gioachino Rossini and Giacomo Meyerbeer, music dating back a generation. Carmen had its premiere two months later, not at the Palais Garnier but at the Opéra Comique, a location that might seem incongruous, given the work’s tragic conclusion. The Opéra, however, was reserved for “grand opera” in the manner of Meyerbeer, and Carmen was not performed at the Palais Garnier until 1959, with President Charles de Gaulle in attendance.
Though the new opera house opened in the early years of the French Third Republic, it was conceived and largely built during the Second Empire, the authoritarian regime of Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the 1850s and 1860s Paris was transformed by the semiautocratic urban designer Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann; as prefect of the Seine he demolished entire neighborhoods of “old Paris” and replaced them with the grand linear boulevards that came to define “new Paris.” It was Haussmann who created the magnificent approach to the Palais Garnier by way of the Avenue de l’Opéra.2
The musicologist Jacek Blaszkiewicz, in Fanfare for a City, describes Haussmann’s transformation of Paris in relation to the policing of the urban soundscape, including its musical entertainments. Just as the visual disorders of poverty and dilapidation and the olfactory disorders of garbage and sewage might be hidden from elite Parisians, so it should be possible to discipline and dissipate the raucous noise of urban life. Blaszkiewicz argues that in the new Paris of the broad boulevards, there was also a conservative supervision of genres of entertainment, each one clearly defined, regulated, and localized, as with the Palais Garnier, built strictly for grand opera.
Blaszkiewicz insightfully explores the Second Empire’s aesthetic of entertainment and sense of decorum concerning the urban soundscape, showing how Haussmann’s “new Paris” sought to contain and restrict café-concerts, street music, and the noise of street vendors crying out their wares. A café-concert was a place to drink coffee or wine with musical entertainment, a soundscape that was vividly described by Hector Berlioz:
Six or seven vocalists on a little stage, accompanied by a tinkling piano, hoarsely dispense comic songs, nocturnes, romances, and character ballads. The roar of conversation, rattle of glasses and click of heels make them practically inaudible, but it covers up the wrong notes.
Both Manet and Degas were fascinated by the café-concerts of the Second Empire, which eventually gave rise to the Montmartre cabarets of the Third Republic. While Haussmann’s Paris sought to define and restrict the spaces where music could be performed, Bizet’s Carmen put the world of the café-concert onto the stage of the Opéra Comique. For Carmen was clearly recognizable as a Roma entertainer who might have been singing or dancing in the café-concerts or in the streets of Paris.
The Second Empire also regulated street music, requiring licenses, restricting performance spaces, and even mandating that performers have a “certificate of good moral standing.” Popular songs, however, could still be subversive, as in the case of one that satirized Haussmann himself as a Turkish despot: his name was pronounced as “Osman,” with his megalomaniacal “Osmanomanie.” In 1864 a nonsensical popular song was sung insolently in the streets of Paris by a group of street urchins on August 15, the birthday of Napoleon I and therefore a ceremonial holiday for Napoleon III. A chorus of street urchins was also present in the first act of Carmen in 1875, and in the last act a chorus of vendors at the bullring rhythmically cried out prices in Spanish currency (“À deux cuartos!”), the sort of public noise that Haussmann’s Paris sought to suppress. In the French libretto they are selling Seville oranges as well as wine and cigarettes, though in the Met’s contemporary American production the translation titles specify popcorn and cotton candy.
Cracknell stages the second-act encounter between Carmen and Don José at a gas station by night, with the two lovers perched on adjoining gas pumps. Carmen rises to stand on her pump and dance for Don José, but at the Met she gets no castanets; they are only heard clicking in the orchestra. The role of Don José on New Year’s Eve was sung by the tenor Rafael Davila, jumping in for the indisposed Piotr Beczała. Davila lacks the lyricism that would have been essential at the Opéra Comique but possesses a husky, almost baritonal middle register from which his top notes thrust upward with dramatic intensity. Born in Puerto Rico, he also provided a Latin element to this production, which goes to some lengths to remove the traces of old Seville from the costuming and the translation titles, though Roma identity and Spanish flavor are fundamental to the French libretto and to Bizet’s music. (The Met titles screens offered translations of the libretto in Spanish as well as English and German, but not the original French, which would have been welcome.)
The libretto for Carmen was based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée, written in 1845 and almost obsessively interested in ethnography. The narrator, a traveling French scholar, encounters Carmen in a mantilla, offers her a cigarette, and tries to guess her identity. Conscious of the deep history of formerly Muslim Andalusia, he exclaims, “‘Then you must be Moorish, or…’ I stopped, hardly daring to say ‘Jewish.’” Carmen replies, “You can see perfectly well that I’m a Gypsy.” Mérimée was playing to the Romantic fascination with Spain as a place of submerged religions and ethnicities, for the Spanish kingdom had compelled its Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity and banished those who refused. The converted Spaniards, conversos and moriscos, sometimes secretly harbored their old identities and passed them down the generations, so that any Spaniard could be a Muslim or Jew by descent. One of the librettists for Carmen, Ludovic Halévy, was related to a French Jewish family partly of Iberian descent.
Mérimée’s Romantic ethnography becomes even more complicated in the case of Don José, whose full name is José Lizarrabengoa. He is Basque, as Carmen instantly guesses upon meeting him. “It wasn’t difficult for Carmen to guess that I was from the Basque Country,” Don José explains.
As you know, señor, the Gypsies have no country of their own. Being always on the move, they speak every language, and most of them are equally at home in Portuguese, French, Basque, or Catalan.
In Mérimée’s story Carmen is casually multilingual, and her seduction of Don José is all the more complete because she can speak to him in his native Basque.
In removing these ethnographic considerations from the sets and costumes and replacing them with an American world of popcorn and cotton candy, the Met production creates stage images that, while sometimes striking, make Bizet’s Spanish rhythms and Roma flourishes seem almost extraneous. Yet the conductor, Daniele Rustioni, clearly relished those rhythms, and he offered a beautiful rendition of the orchestral entr’acte preceding the final scene, with evocative colorings from the piccolo, harp, triangle, and tambourine. Akhmetshina, though she is usually identified as Russian, comes from the province of Bashkiria, which has a large Muslim population, in the southern Urals. “I’m half Tatar, half Bashkir,” she explained in a recent interview, noting that the regional history involved “living in small communities that constantly moved around.” She identifies with Carmen: “It’s kind of in my blood.” In another interview she explained that “my name, Aigul, means ‘Ai’ (moon), ‘Gul’ (flower) in my native language.” The Turkic etymology of that name is just the sort of detail that Mérimée would have appreciated.
The second act of Cracknell’s Met production is staged in simulated motion for Carmen’s itinerant gang: the semitrailer truck becomes a mobile café-concert, while the smugglers’ lively quintet is sung as open road music in the back of a pickup truck. The charm of the quintet is a reminder of why this work found a home at the Opéra Comique, even though it violated the conventions of that theater by concluding with a bloody murder on stage. The characters in Carmen who were most at home at the Opéra Comique were Escamillo, the swaggering toreador who replaces Don José as Carmen’s lover, and Micaëla, the innocent country girl in love with Don José. At the Met, Escamillo was transposed from bullfighter to rodeo star but remained a charismatic celebrity entertainer, Carmen’s natural counterpart; the bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen performed the role with gusto and a hypermasculine lower register. The soprano Angel Blue sang Micaëla with beautiful top notes, but lacked some of the poignancy that Bizet invested in the character. Certainly Cracknell’s production does her no favors by making her sing the exquisite aria affirming her mission to rescue Don José alongside the gigantic overturned truck that dominates the third act, turning slowly on the Met’s revolving stage.
Halévy (the nephew of Fromental Halévy, composer of La Juive) collaborated with Henri Meilhac to produce the original libretto of Carmen: Halévy wrote the verses and Meilhac the spoken dialogue. For the works presented at the Opéra Comique—combining dialogue and song—resembled what we would consider operetta. After Carmen’s premiere in Paris, which had a mixed reception—some criticized it as Wagnerian, “often dull and obscure,” composed with a “complete absence of light”—it was sent abroad to opera houses that did not favor spoken dialogue, notably Vienna in October 1875. Bizet, however, had died of a heart attack in June at the age of thirty-six, and it was therefore his colleague Ernest Guiraud who composed recitatives to replace most of Meilhac’s dialogue, so the opera could be sung through from beginning to end (as we usually hear it today).
Vienna was the perfect launching pad for this revised Carmen, because the Habsburg capital had a long tradition of celebrating Roma music within classical forms. Joseph Haydn made use of the Hungarian-Roma pieces that he learned while working for the Esterházy family in eighteenth-century Hungary. Johannes Brahms, who loved Carmen as much as Nietzsche did, published his first set of “Hungarian Dances” in 1869 and would present his “Gypsy Songs” (Zigeunerlieder) in 1888. Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus had its premiere in Vienna in 1874, just before Carmen, and included a Hungarian-Roma “Csárdás,” sung by the soprano at the climax of the second-act masked ball. Vienna adopted and applauded the Spanish-Roma scenario of Bizet’s work, and Carmen went on to conquer the operatic world.
Carmen’s anthem in the finale of the second act is a hymn to freedom: “La liberté!” Mérimée had noted that the nomadic Roma “have no country of their own,” and Bizet has Carmen sing: “Comme c’est beau, la vie errante” (How beautiful is the wandering life). She leads the ensemble and chorus as they come together fortississimo in the celebratory key of C major, exulting in the spirit of liberty, as if she were Eugène Delacroix’s allegorical figure Liberty Leading the People.
One of Carmen’s fundamental freedoms is her sexual liberty, her control over her body, which she gives and withholds according to her own choice. Like the emblem of eighteenth-century libertinism, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, who sings “Viva la libertà,” Carmen pursues her own romantic and sexual satisfaction, and like Don Giovanni, when faced with death in the final scene she defiantly refuses to concede or repent. Cracknell highlights the opera’s theme of violence against women, and the murderous final confrontation was performed with terrifying tension at the Met: Davila found the anguished passion for Don José’s last desperate plea, “Carmen, il est temps encore” (There is still time). Akhmetshina harmonized with him gorgeously even as she refused to accompany him, told him that she no longer loved him, and returned again and again to the word that defined her liberty: “Non!”
Carmen’s vocal line has almost collapsed by the time she throws away Don José’s ring and challenges him with a single contemptuous syllable, often more snarled than sung: “Tiens!” (Take it!) This is her last word and also perhaps Bizet’s challenge to the public, to accept an opera that defied conventions. The chorus of spectators in the bullring sing out their enthusiasm for the bullfight, intruding on the final duet and disregarding the sonic norms of Haussmann’s Paris by combining operatic passion and public noise.
Carmen belonged to the new era of the Third Republic, which followed the fall of Napoleon III—and Haussmann—in 1870. Bizet died too soon to witness Carmen’s success, but Haussmann lived until 1891 to enjoy the triumph of his transformation of Paris. Bizet’s glamorous wife, Geneviève Halévy, the cousin of the librettist, lived until 1926 and presided over a famous salon on the Boulevard Haussmann. In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), his hero Hans Castorp listens intently to an excerpt from Carmen on an early recording. Carmen demands that Don José desert the army, and he pleadingly sings his “Flower Song,” in which he recalls the flower that she had thrown to him and that he cherished in prison (after allowing her to escape arrest). Hans Castorp identifies with the soldier’s conflicted sense of duty: “The orchestration lends all the resources of its enchantment to paint the anguish, the longing, the desperate tenderness, sweet despair, in the little soldier’s heart…he felt that he was undone, for ever lost.” According to Mann, “Hans Castorp played this single record over and over, and listened with the deepest participation.” He was entranced by the musical agony of self-destructive infatuation, and for Mann the fate of the soldier, lover, and killer Don José became part of the novel’s reckoning with Europe’s self-destruction in World War I.
Nietzsche did not have the option of playing a recording over and over, but by 1888, when he published The Case of Wagner, he had already seen Carmen twenty times. “Bizet’s music seems to me perfect,” he wrote. “It comes forward lightly, gracefully, stylishly.” Yet Carmen is also a dark and disturbing work. “You are the devil,” says Don José to Carmen in Mérimée’s story (and in Meilhac’s original spoken dialogue for the opera), and Carmen replies simply, “Yes.” She offers no apologies, and Bizet’s opera, even if we have seen it twenty times, still challenges us (“Tiens!”) with every new production as it moves—lightly, gracefully, stylishly—to its homicidal conclusion, daring us to resolve its fascinating contradictions.