Carmen

Music by Georges Bizet

Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

Thrilling but dangerous, the captivating, capricious Carmen is one of the most vivid characters in all of opera, and two mezzo-sopranos will portray the bold femme fatale on the War Memorial stage. Kendall Gladen (Nov 6, 9 and Nov 26–Dec 4), a former Adler Fellow whose “tone was plush and appealing, and she negotiated Bizet's tricky harmonies with the kind of assurance most mezzos might envy” (San Francisco Chronicle) and Anita Rachvelishvili (Nov 12–23) “brought an ample, earthy voice and sensual lyricism to her performance, winning a hearty ovation” (The New York Times). The classic Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production features tenor Thiago Arancam, fresh from his success in San Francisco Opera's Cyrano de Bergerac (2010), as Don José, the man who unwisely falls under Carmen's spell. Paulo Szot, a Tony Award winner for South Pacific adored for his "sultry bedroom eyes and...rich, commanding baritone" (The New York Times) promises to be a breathtaking bullfighter, with Adler Fellow soprano Sara Gartland as Micaëla.


Sung in French with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes including two intermissions


San Francisco Opera production

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio credit: Audio excerpts are from the November 24, 2006 performance of Carmen with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing


Cast

Carmen Kendall Gladen NOV 6, 9, 26, 29; DEC 2, 4
Carmen Anita Rachvelishvili * NOV 12, 15, 17, 20, 23
Don José Thiago Arancam
Micaëla Sara Gartland
Escamillo Paulo Szot *
Frasquita Susannah Biller
Mercédès Cybele Gouverneur
Le Dancaïre Timothy Mix
Le Remendado Daniel Montenegro
Moralès Trevor Scheunemann
Zuniga Wayne Tigges

Production Credits

Conductor Nicola Luisotti
Conductor Giuseppe Finzi Dec 2, 4
Director Jose Maria Condemi
Set Designer Jean Pierre Ponnelle
Costume Designer Werner Juerke
Chorus Director Ian Robertson

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

ACT I
Corporal Moralès and his men are resting outside the guardhouse as Micaëla comes looking for Don José. The change of guard arrives, among them Corporal José and Lieutenant Zuniga. Zuniga questions José about the nearby cigarette factory and the girls who work there. The cigarette girls leave the factory for a break, and the men await a glimpse of Carmen. When she appears, Carmen flirts with them and gives a flower to José. The girls then return to work and José is left alone. Micaëla returns and gives José a letter from his mother. She leaves when he begins to read the letter that advises him to marry Micaëla and settle down. Screams are heard from the cigarette factory, and Zuniga sends José to find out the cause of the disturbance. José returns with Carmen and another girl, Manuelita, whose face has a knife wound inflicted by Carmen. When Carmen refuses to speak, Zuniga orders José to tie her hands and take her to prison and leaves to make out the warrant for Carmen’s arrest. Carmen hints to José about a rendezvous at her friend Lillas Pastia’s tavern, and José agrees to let her escape. When Zuniga returns with the warrant, Carmen breaks free as she is being led off to prison. José is arrested.
 
ACT II
Carmen and her Gypsy friends Frasquita and Mercédès sing and dance at Lillas Pastia’s tavern. At closing time the innkeeper begs the soldiers to leave. Zuniga tells Carmen that José has been released from prison. A torchlight procession announces the arrival of the torero, Escamillo. Escamillo acknowledges the soldiers’ toast and describes the excitement of the bullfight. He is attracted to Carmen, who entices him. As the soldiers leave, Zuniga promises to return to see Carmen. Dancaïre and Remendado come to ask the three Gypsy girls to join them in a smuggling expedition. José arrives and gives Carmen the gold piece she sent him along with a file while he was in prison. He explains that his soldier’s honor prevented him from trying to escape. Carmen dances for José, but when retreat sounds, he starts to leave for the barracks. She taunts him and challenges him to follow her to the mountains. When Zuniga returns, the two soldiers fight and are disarmed by the smugglers. José has no choice but to join the band of smugglers.
 
ACT III
The smugglers are at work in the mountains. Carmen has become fed up with José’s jealousy. Frasquita and Mercédès read their own good fortune in the cards. When Carmen takes her turn, she only finds death. Dancaïre asks the girls to distract the customs men on duty. The girls agree and depart, leaving José on guard. Micaëla appears with a mountain guide looking for the Gypsies and runs off as Escamillo arrives. José challenges Escamillo to a duel, but Carmen intervenes as the smugglers re-enter and break up the fight. Escamillo invites the band of smugglers to his next bullfight. Micaëla is discovered hiding, and she tells José that his mother is dying. He leaves with her, but warns Carmen that they will meet again.
 
ACT IV
The crowd gathers outside the arena for the bullfight. When Carmen and Escamillo appear, Frasquita and Mercédès warn her that José is in the crowd. Carmen waits alone outside the arena. José confronts her and begs that she return to him. She refuses and returns his ring. Realizing that Escamillo is her new lover, he kills her.

The Enduring Charms of Carmen

Christopher Hunt

Carmen was Georges Bizet’s last opera. He died, aged thirty-seven, three months after the premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1875. Although Carmen is probably the most popular of all operas, it was a fiasco at the outset.

Up to that time no work given at the Opéra-Comique had ended with a violent death on stage. It was a “family” theater, and although Paris in the 1870s was no haven of morality, the reaction of press and public alike to the presence on the Opéra-Comique stage of what were regarded as thieves, murderers, and prostitutes, was one of shocked disapproval. Only later, and after many revisions—only a few of which originated with the dying composer—did Carmen take its place in the international repertoire.

It was in fact not in Paris but in Vienna, and then in a significantly different version, that Carmen triumphed. For the Vienna production, which took place later in the same year—1875—as the original Paris premiere, Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud revised the whole work, writing fully composed orchestral recitatives in place of the original spoken dialogue, recomposing several sections, and making a number of substantial new cuts. It was in this form, acceptable now to the theaters where grand opera (which acknowledged no spoken dialogue) was performed, that Carmen secured its world success. Yet the original version has a dramatic immediacy absent from the smoother recitative version, and in recent years, inspired particularly by the publication of a controversial scholarly edition by the German musicologist Fritz Oeser, the dialogue version has been performed more and more often. And this even despite the difficulty of finding actor-singers who are not uncomfortable with spoken French.

It is not, however, a simple problem of deciding between two versions, one original and one altered. Bizet himself made changes and cuts during rehearsals and after the first few performances. Some cuts were made for dramatic reasons, some were forced on him by adverse criticism, recalcitrant singers, or worried managements. There is no single original form, and Oeser’s edition, which has been used in San Francisco since 1981, has come under a good deal of critical attack.

The origins of the Carmen story are fairly well known and authenticated. Bizet’s two librettists, Henri Meilhac (later known particularly for the libretto to Massenet’s Manon and as the author of the original stage play on which The Merry Widow was based), and Ludovic Halévy, nephew to the eponymous composer, drew their material from two main sources: the more important of these was a novella entitled Carmen, published in 1845 by the French writer Prosper Mérimée, whose travels in Spain and Catalonia had given him a lively interest in Gypsies. The second was a poem by Pushkin, The Gypsies, which was translated from the Russian by the same Prosper Mérimée, some years after Carmen. Like the novella, Pushkin’s poem told of a tragic fugitive who loves a faithless Gypsy girl.

Mérimée’s Carmen, one of the first great novellas in the French language, is told in the first person, with an introduction setting the story in its context and with a curious semi-scholarly postscript on Gypsy folklore. The narrative is told by a bandit, who has killed a fellow Basque in a duel and been forced to leave his home country. Although the ending of Mérimée’s story differs from that of the opera, the essence of the opera’s plot is already there. Meilhac and Halévy, however, made significant changes. Several characters were given new names; the role of the Toreador was greatly expanded; and an entirely new character was introduced in the peasant girl Micaëla, who gave Bizet the lyrical counterpart to Carmen’s dramatic virility necessary for musical balance.

The Gypsies on whom
Mérimée based his creation of La Carmencita are believed first to have appeared in Europe at the end of the fourteenth century. Their origins are buried obscurely in the Byzantine world from which they roamed westward and across Europe. At the time they were thought to have originated in Egypt, hence their name. Modern scholarship places their origin in central India. But, whatever their roots, they remained nomadic, harried, and persecuted, especially outside Spain. Northern European farmers dreaded the arrival of colorful nomads who liked to live free off their crops and livestock; villagers in their cottages resented roving caravan-dwellers without fixed homes; educationalists detested the Gypsy’s scorn for normal schools; and in our century, dictators have exterminated Gypsies along with Jews, homosexuals, and other supposed offenders against settled social systems and bourgeois Christian morality. It was a similar outraged morality that turned Carmen’s premiere audience into hysterical opposition as they came to see that the interesting new figures on the Opéra-Comique stage were not the safe and charming miscreants of the safe and charming repertoire they were used to.

It was only in the nineteenth-century literature that Gypsies began to assume the romantic image we now associate with them. The change was largely due to the writings of the Englishman George Borrow, whose Lavengro and Romany Rye were the cornerstones of later Gypsy imagery. Borrow, like
Mérimée after him, traveled in Spain and Portugal and immersed himself in the life of the Gypsies of the Iberian peninsula; there are plentiful echoes of that immersion in Mérimée’s writing and they survived in the libretto for the opera. Bizet, however, never went to Spain, and in the age before recordings he would have known little about Spanish music. Although Carmen is popularly thought to epitomize Spain and its music, it is more French than it is Spanish. Some of the rhythms of Carmen, and perhaps a couple of the melodies, did originate in Spain, though one of the best known, the Habanera, comes not from Spain but from Havana and had its origins (as Bizet acknowledged) in simple chromatic folksong by the Cuban composer Sebastián Yradier. By slight alterations of harmony and rhythm and one or two note changes, Bizet transformed the simple original into a magical song that perfectly exemplifies the character of his Gypsy heroine. The Habanera almost never happened, for Bizet wrote a dozen versions of an opening song for his first Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié, all of which she rejected. It was only during rehearsals that Bizet hastily rewrote Yradier’s melody and incorporated it into his score.

By one of those strange coincidences that seem to go with operatic history, on the night Bizet died in the French countryside, far from Paris, Célestine Galli-Marié collapsed unconscious in the middle of a Carmen performance at the Opéra-Comique. She had been obsessed throughout the evening with the feeling that something was seriously wrong. It was later established that she fainted at precisely the moment of Bizet’s death, of which she could have known nothing.

It was an extraordinary era for the arts in Paris. Bizet’s experience with Carmen was not unique. The opera’s originality, its disastrous initial reception, and its subsequent popularity, have precise parallels in the work of painters who were just then being named Impressionists. Carmen was written in 1874 and first performed on March 3, 1875. The first Impressionist exhibition, the Salon de Refusés, was in 1874, and the name Peintres Impressionnistes was first accepted by the painters themselves at the second such salon the year following Carmen’s premiere.

The names of those composers and literary figures known to have attended that premiere are a reminder of the artistic ferment that characterized Parisian life of the period: Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, Delibes, Offenbach, Massenet, D’Indy, Alphonse Daudet, Alexandre Dumas fils. It was the era of the Goncourt brothers and their revealing Journal; of Zola’s sensual and sensational “Realist” novels; of Rimbaud, Renan, Flaubert, and Verlaine; the period of that adventurous pair of proto-surrealist novels, Lautrémont’s Chants de Maldoror and Huysman’s Au Rebors; the time in which Manet, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Boudin, Sisley, and Berthe Morisot were first becoming known. In the year in which Realism became the new martial cry of literary Paris, Bizet produced the first, and perhaps most complete, example of French opera to which the same term could properly be applied.

Bizet himself was a musician of natural talents so startling that he bears comparison as a child prodigy with Mendelssohn and Mozart. Like Mozart, he was an outstandingly gifted pianist. The story is told of his being taken, as a young student in Italy on a Prix de Rome scholarship, to one of Liszt’s salons. During the evening, Liszt played one of his latest compositions, of customary difficulty, remarking that he thought only two pianists in the world could perform it, himself and Hans von Bülow. Gounod, who had taken the young Bizet to the salon, suggested that his protégé might be another. Bizet thereupon played the most difficult section of the piece faultlessly from memory, later adding the entire composition, although he had heard it only once when Liszt himself played it.

Oddly, Bizet wrote very little original piano music, and what little he did write has been criticized for its essentially orchestral qualities. This may well be a reflection of Bizet’s circumstances: for the greater part of his career, as his own music failed to win acceptance, he earned his living working each day on arranging other peoples’ orchestral and operatic works for piano. In the days before the invention of the radio and phonograph, it was through such arrangements, the best of which came from Liszt, that most people got to know the existing repertory.

Despite the admiration of Liszt and the support of Gounod, his professor at the Paris Conservatoire, and the friendship of other musicians, Bizet failed to gain commercial success in his lifetime. He began work on some twenty-eight theater pieces, but many of them remained unfinished and although seven were staged, none had much acclaim. An early one-act operetta, Dr. Miracle, written when he was nineteen and still studying at the Conservatoire, won a competition organized by Offenbach, but it brought no ensuing fame. A remarkably skilled and enchanting Symphony in C major, written when he was seventeen, remained unplayed and forgotten among his manuscripts until its rediscovery in 1935. Berlioz, in his last published article, praised Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) at the opera’s premiere in 1863, but the public was less enthusiastic. Critical approval three years later for La Jolie Fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth) still brought no warmer public response. By now Bizet was thirty and had begun to despair of ever achieving success; more and more of his time was given over to musical hack-work, piano arrangements, and teaching. His private life, once filled with numerous more-or-less scandalous liaisons with women ranging from his mother’s housekeeper to the fantastic adventuress Céleste Mogador, changed to settled domesticity after 1869 when he married Geneviève Halévy, daughter of his former teacher of composition at the Conservatoire; but the change brought with it no greater public success.

Work after work was refused by the Paris theaters, or failed when brought to the stage, among them the highly original Djamileh, whose exquisite craftsmanship was later much admired by Mahler. As so often in operatic history, a great part of the responsibility for a string of operatic failures lay with the inadequacy of the libretti. When finally a first-class libretto did appear in Carmen, Bizet’s gifts were fully developed and his imagination triumphantly met the challenge. It was a tragic irony that the throat ailment that had increasingly plagued him since his student days now took a final deadly turn; though the initial reception of Carmen in Paris certainly seemed to confirm the pattern of failure to which the dying composer had become ever more depressingly accustomed, this time the failure was to be short-lived. It still took eight more years before Paris acknowledged the genius of the work that was recognized elsewhere almost at once as what it has remained ever since, the finest of all opéras comiques.

The very success of Carmen has militated against it. Overfamiliarity has blunted our ability to appreciate Bizet’s originality. Beneath the familiar and deceptively simple surface of Carmen lie masterly and complex compositional techniques. The harmonies are often those that are more regularly associated with the impressionistic composers, and even with the atonalists who followed Debussy; Bizet’s harmonic audacity always, however, serves a precisely calculated dramatic purpose. The melodies, too, reflect—on levels that range from extreme subtlety to deliberate banality—exactly the atmosphere Bizet wanted to portray; and the folksong elements and Spanish idioms are nevertheless wholly true to Bizet’s own individual nature. The orchestral scoring is of an extraordinary delicacy and colorist variety, frequently foreshadowing Mahler in the use of chamber-music forces within the orchestra and the reservation of the full force only for climactic moments where the orchestra plays its own role in the drama. Bizet’s contrapuntal skill is so perfectly at the command of his dramatic needs that its technical perfection in Carmen passes almost without notice.

Carmen
is a masterpiece in which music and drama are wedded with a concision that parallels Mozart. Unlike Mozart, Bizet (who died at much the same early age as the Salzburg master) had only begun to achieve professional maturity when he died. Yet in Carmen he left a score that so miraculously combines dramatic use of varied material with the highest compositional skill that on the basis of this one opera he deserves to be ranked with the greatest opera composers. Nietzsche, perhaps somewhat overreacting to the contemporary forces of Wagnerism, was nevertheless right in praising the score of Carmen as extravagantly as he did: there is indeed not one note out of place, not one that could be removed, nor any need to add more. Yet Bizet died, supposedly heartbroken at Carmen’s reception in Paris, without knowing that his masterpiece would ever be anything but a failure.

Christopher Hunt has been a professor in the Arts Administration Program at Indiana University Bloomington since 2006. Before that he was for forty-five years an artist manager (London 1962–75), festival director (Wolf Trap, Adelaide, Ojai, PepsiCo Summerfare), and opera administrator (Royal Opera, Covent Garden; San Francisco Opera; Bastille Opera). This piece was published previously by
San Francisco Opera Magazine.

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Director's Note: Thoughts on Carmen

Jose Maria Condemi

 

While working on Bizet’s Carmen I found myself reflecting on the topic of “encounter with difference”— unlikely relationships that form between non-like-minded people—and pondering both the attraction and violence those experiences can generate. Both Carmen and Don José are members of marginalized minority populations in 19th-century Spain: she is a Gypsy and he is a Basque.

Mérimée’s novella tells us José is a criminal whose dark past includes theft and murder. However when we first meet José, he is living a socially and morally accepted existence. He appears fixated on the familiar and the homogeneous (his controlling mother and his unpretentious childhood sweetheart Micaëla), yet his repressed shadows occasionally burst through. Enter the tantalizing Carmen, and José’s life is thrown into a vortex of unrepressed chaos. Compulsively attracted to her, José’s character development could be seen as his gradual decay into obsessive madness with Carmen, or as an essential rite of passage from a sexually undeveloped “boy” to a mature man capable of embracing the unfamiliar and, ultimately, full emotional truth and passionate love.  

Carmen’s perspective is entirely different: Like a female Don Giovanni, she craves adventure and thrives on danger. Risk is her fetish and freedom is her drug of choice. Carmen is not only fearless in the face of death but also strangely attracted to it. I imagine that she sees through the cracks of Don José’s repressed facade and gazes into the darkest corners of his soul; what she sees entices and fascinates her. For a brief time, he becomes her obsession as she becomes his. Yet when the object of her obsession loses its initial charm, she moves on. The other has become familiar, and the appeal of the different has faded.

By the last scene José is left with no valid options: no career, no family, no peer group, no self-worth, no Carmen. He is a broken man whose fatal attraction has mutated into alienation and violence.

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"A Vivid 'Carmen'!"
Kendall Gladen's "smooth, rich, even tone perfectly supported the casual intensity of 'Habanera'...she showed real authority at this crucial opening moment."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Bizet's spell still hypnotizes...thanks to Ponnelle's bold production and Luisotti's magical conducting!"
Music Director Nicola Luisotti's "fast-starting prelude whipped up so much excitement that the sophisticated Sunday audience inappropriately broke into applause before the final slow section."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
A "sultry Kendall Gladen and Thiago Arancam is a boyish, lyrical Don José."

  –The Wall Street Journal
A "Propulsive, Stylish Production."


  –San Francisco Classical Voice

Performances

  • Sun 11/6/11 2:00pm *

  • Wed 11/9/11 7:30pm

  • Sat 11/12/11 8:00pm

  • Tue 11/15/11 8:00pm

  • Thu 11/17/11 7:30pm *

  • Sun 11/20/11 2:00pm *

  • Wed 11/23/11 7:30pm *

  • Sat 11/26/11 8:00pm

  • Tue 11/29/11 7:30pm

  • Fri 12/2/11 8:00pm

  • Sun 12/4/11 7:30pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors


Company Sponsor Mrs. Edmund W. Littlefield is proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by United.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.