About this Recording
8.550727 - BIZET, G.: Carmen (Highlights) (Alperyn, Lamberti, Titus, Palade, Rahbari)
English 

Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)
Carmen (Highlights)

Bizet's opera Carmen was first produced at the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1875. The French genre of opera-comique had arisen in the eighteenth century as a Gallic counterpart of the Italian opera buffa, injecting an air of contemporary realism into operatic form. The success of operetta in the nineteenth century offered a challenge to the form, which retained the characteristic of the German Singspiel, spoken dialogue taking the place of the recitative of opera seria or French grand opera, but increasingly lacked power or conviction. Carmen, in its original version with spoken dialogue, derived largely from Prosper Mérimée's novel on which the opera was based. created something of a scandal, and opened the way to a new form of opera. While nineteenth century French audiences at the Opera-Comique might find in Micaela a recognisable character, Carmen, a vicious outcast from decent society, was not the ideal heroine for popular family entertainment.

Georges Bizet was born in Paris in 1838, the son of a singing teacher. He entered the Conservatoire at the age of ten and even in childhood had some lessons, at least, from Charles Gounod, and later became a pupil of Fromental Halevy, a prolific composer of opera, whose daughter, subject like her mother to intermittent bouts of mental instability, he married in 1869. Ludovic Halevy, a cousin, collaborated on the libretto for Carmen. As a student Bizet won the expected successes, culminating in 1857 in the first prize in the Prix de Rome, followed by three years at the Villa Medici, in accordance with the terms of the award, modified to allow him to remain in Rome for the final year, rather than move to Germany. In Paris, where he returned in September 1860 on receiving news of his mother's illness, he earned a living by hack-work for the theatre and for publishers, interspersed with more ambitious undertakings, including Les pecheurs des perles, staged with moderate success at the Opera-Comique in 1863, followed, in 1867, by Lajolie fille de Perth at the Theatre-Lyrique. In 1872 the opera Djamileh, mounted at the Opera-Comique, was a failure, as was the original score for the melodrama L'Arlesienne, a collaboration with Alphonse Daudet.

The projected opera on the subject of Carmen met many difficulties. There were natural objections to the subject on the part of the theatre management, followed by further objections from singers to whom the title-r6le was offered. Bizet himself was constantly involved with the demands of his wife and her mother, while handling practical difficulties during rehearsals, once the work was complete, with a chorus that found difficulty in singing and acting simultaneously and an orchestra that was used to lighter fare. The librettists Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac were generally too busy to give much attention to a work they thought doomed, but did their best to modify the production to avoid offending the public. Galli-Marié, the first Carmen, and Paul Lherié, who sang the part of Don José, supported Bizet's intentions.

The first performance of Carmen, on 3rd March 1875, was received relatively coldly. The critics were equally shocked, condemning the licentiousness of the characters and the alleged lack of melody in a score that they considered Wagnerian in its orchestral excesses. Gounod, who had congratulated the composer on his work, confided to friends in the theatre that the only decent melodies were one filched from him, for Micaela in the third act, and the rest from Spain. There were those, however, who had some notion of what Bizet was attempting, praising this injection of realism.

There is no doubt that Carmen was at first a failure. It had a run of some 45 performances, and was able, at least as a succes de scandale, to attract the curious. The composer died on 3rd June. For years he had suffered a recurrence of a throat infection and now, weakened, it seems, by depression at the apparent failure of his new opera, he lacked the will to survive. The actual cause of Bizet's death was heart failure, coming after days of high fever, the immediate result of spending too much time in the water during a swim in the Seine. During a performance of Carmen on the day of his death, Galli-Marie had been seized by a feeling of strong foreboding, as she sang the words of the card scene - "moi d'abord, ensuite lui, pour tous les deux la mort" - and was overcome, as she left the stage. A few hours later Bizet, who had left Paris for the country air of Bougival in May, was dead.

Carmen was not repeated at the Opera-Comique until 1883, when it was performed in an emasculated version that provoked as much hostility as the earlier version. By this time the opera had won an international reputation, particularly after its production in Vienna in October 1875, with recitatives written by Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud, and audiences in Paris had learned what to expect. In the autumn of 1883 the Paris production was revised and Galli-Marie re-engaged to sing the r61e she had memorably created and triumphantly repeated abroad. The opera was at last accepted by the French public as a masterpiece of French operatic repertoire.

The story of Carmen is essentially a simple one. The gypsy factory-girl Carmen, the centre of male attention, flirts with the Dragoons Corporal Don José, who is attracted to her in spite of his long-standing love for Micaela, a girl from his own village. When Carmen is arrested for starting a brawl in the factory, Don José allows her to escape. She later induces him to desert and join her and her criminal companions, smugglers, at their mountain hide-away. Meanwhile Carmen has fallen in love with the toreador Escamillo. At a final scene outside the bull-ring in Seville Don José, frantic with jealousy, draws his knife and kills her.

{1} The Prelude to the opera includes music associated with the toreador Escamillo, immediately followed by the sinister Fate theme. The first act opens with a group of soldiers, lounging in the square in front of the tobacco-factory where Carmen works. They discuss the girls and are joined by Micaela, who is looking for Don José but does not wait with the soldiers. The guard changes and Don José takes over, with his men. {2} In Lacloche asonnée (The bell has rung) the factory- bell sounds, a signal for the girls in the factory to stop work, the moment the men outside have been waiting for. Carmen is, of course, the center of their attention, and here sings her famous Habanera, {3} recounting the dangers of love and the danger of flouting her, if she is in love with anyone. As she leaves to return to work, she looks round and throws a flower at the feet of Don José, leaving him to a gradual realisation of her power over him. The act continues with a scene between Don José and Micaela which does something to restore his equanimity. There is a fracas in the factory and Carmen is arrested, later to induce Don José to allow her to escape, {4} fascinating him with her Seguidilla (Nearthe ramparts of Seville, at the tavern of Lillas Pastia, I’ll dance the seguidilla and drink manzanilla).

The second act is set in the tavern of Lillas Pastia, {5} introduced by an Entr'acte that recalls the soldier's song of Don José and the world he now seems about to leave for the gypsy life of Carmen. She and her friends Frasquita and Mercedes are found in the tavern with a group of officers and Captain Zuniga tells Carmen of Don José's arrest for dereliction of duty, his release and his demotion. {6} The toreador Escamillo comes in and proposes a toast to the officers, with whom he has fellow feeling as a warrior in the bull-ring. He then concentrates his attention on Carmen, who rejects his advances. When Escamillo and the officers have gone, Lillas Pastia calls in two smugglers, planning to bring contraband into Spain from Gibraltar. Carmen at first refuses to join the enterprise, since she is in love with Don José. {7}When he comes in, he tells her of his love for her, recalling the flower that she threw him (La fleurquetu m'avaisjetee) and that he has treasured ever since. She tries to persuade her lover to join her and the smugglers but he refuses, vowing to leave her, until the voice of Captain Zuniga is heard, calling for Carmen. When Don José is ordered back to barracks, he draws his sword against the officer, inevitably throwing in his lot with the brigands, who overpower and disarm Zuniga.

{8} The Entr'acte depicts the tranquil serenity of the country, where the third act is set. It is night at the smuggler's mountain hide-away, where bales of contraband are being moved. {9} The brigands urge one another to caution, singing of the dangers of their trade and its rewards. Don José has regrets at the step he has taken, thinking of his mother, while Carmen, with growing impatience, bids him be gone. He moves away and sits apart, while Carmen and her friends wile away the time by telling each other's fortunes: Carmen's fate is to be death. As the task of the smugglers continues, {10} Carmen and her friends declare their willingness to deal with the customs officer (Quant au douanierc'est notre affaire), using their feminine charms. {11} Micaela comes in search of her beloved Don José, summoning up all her courage in this dangerous place and calling on Heaven to protect her. She tells Don José of the mortal illness of his mother and Carmen too urges him to go. As he does so, the voice of Escamillo is heard, exciting his rival’s jealousy yet again.

{12} The Entr'acte that precedes the fourth act of the opera is based on an Andalusian melody and leads to a scene set in a square in Seville, in front of the bull-ring. {13} An excited crowd awaits the appearance of its hero, the toreador Escamillo, who now comes in, with Carmen at his side, greeted by the people (Les voici! Les voici!). Turning to her, he tells her that if she loves him she will have cause to be proud of him, and she assures him of her love. The Mayor and his guards enter the amphitheatre, followed by the rest of the procession, and her friends warn Carmen not to stay, for fear of Don José, who has been lurking in the crowd. Now they are left alone together and Carmen tells Don José that she has been warned to be careful. He urges her to return to him, but she is adamant in her refusal, whatever it may bring. The sound of the crowd applauding Escamillo's success is heard, exciting Carmen's admiration and provoking Don José's jealousy still more. She attempts to leave him, but he holds her back, although once more she tells him that she does not love him. The crowd is heard again from the arena, and Don José takes his final revenge, stabbing her to the heart, as the crowd repeats the words of the toreador's song, promising love as the reward of victory.


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