Spanish sun and passion will warm Canberra audiences this winter week as Opera Australia brings its traveling production of Bizet Carmen, one of the most popular works in the repertoire in town.
Carmen, director Matthieu barclay explains, is one of the most famous femme fatales throughout literature and theater: a gypsy who “wants to break the rules and live outside the bounds of normal human social life.” She wants to live like a child of nature.
Carmen loves freedom as much as she loves any man, and claims the right to love whoever she wants and to do what she wants. She is a singer Angela Hogan says, “a very strong woman who is probably a little ahead of her time – she is very forward thinking: a free spirit.”
It leads to disaster when a conventional man falls in love with this unconventional woman. Don José, once a respected soldier with a promising career and a kind and reliable girlfriend, desert his regiment, becomes a brigand and kills the woman he desires and who destroyed him. As Carmen’s new lover, the bullfighter Escamillo, kills the bull in the arena, the outer plaza becomes a private arena where Don José kills his executioner. In this “moment of truth”, he becomes both a torero and a mad and goaded bull. Like other weak men have done, he kills the woman he loves.
“It’s ultimately a story of domestic violence,” says Barclay. “It could be – and is happening – in regional cities across Australia. “
Spain and regional Australia are at odds in the production of Barclay. Both are harsh environments – dry, hot, desolate. Although set in Franco’s Spain in the 1960s, the familiar Australian iconography returns: bleachers, diners, jukeboxes, abandoned drive-in parks. Barclay hopes the public will feel that the story is not so far removed from their own experience.
Although the work ends with a murder, Barclay wants to avoid getting bogged down in the heavy and fatalistic elements of the story – the eerie feeling that death is approaching, that constant feeling that tragedy is experienced at every turn of the century. ‘history’. He wants to find “the lightness in the room, the moments when there is a real enthusiasm and love for life”.
Carmen, in fact, is awesome entertainment. Much of the opera is light: choirs of soldiers, smokers and crowds shout “Olé! sensual gypsy beauties dance on tavern tables; the smugglers praise the cunning of women; and Carmen herself, half-seductress, half-humorist, laughs and sings, a flower between her teeth. To this he mixes the tender feeling of Don José’s lost love for his fiancée Micaëla, his obsessive jealousy of Carmen and a brutal murder.
The opera, says Barclay, is full of pageantry and visceral theatricality: characters at the extremes of their desires, bullfights, knife fights, parades, Spanish color and energy.
And the numbers are eye-catching, pouring out with almost inexhaustible fertility. Half the world knows them.
“Carmen is full of melodies that people who may have never been to opera, never thought of actively listening to opera, have heard, ”said Angela Hogan. “The theme song of Geelong Football is the tune of the Toreador. Everyone knows the Habanera be it from cartoons or commercials.
Turn on the television and Carmen advertises everything from fast food to sports and printers. It is a mainstay of radio stations; At one point, ABC Classic aired highlights from Carmen almost daily. A Tintin BD album opens with a museum guard singing the Toreador song. Adaptations have been made in black America (Carmen jones, 1955) and the South African townships (U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, 2005). Carmen, as Barclay says, is eternally popular, eternally fresh.
But the opera failed in Paris – withdrawn after 48 uncrowded performances – and was not seen there for seven years. (Meanwhile, the rest of Europe – from Wagner and Nietzsche to Brahms and Tchaikovsky – loved it.)
The opera ended in failure because it featured women and “libertine” criminals at the Opéra-Comique, which defended decent family values. “The underworld of thieves, gypsies, smokers – at the theater of families, of weddings? exclaimed the director. “You would scare the public away!” Worse, the heroine dies – violently. It was then that the director resigned in protest. Critics found the work shocking, vulgar, if not non-musical realism, and demanded that the libretto be rewritten.
And the librettists had already sanitized the room. In Prosper Merimée’s original short story, Don José is a notorious thief who murders several people, including his senior officer and Carmen’s husband, while Carmen is a thief and a witch, with several lovers. The characters cheat, lie, steal and kill – and the whole story is treated as impartially as Dashiell Hammett portrays the gangsters and their molls. Put that on stage in 1875, and the audience would have revolted.
Poor Bizet died after the 33rd performance, at only 36 years old, without seeing his masterpiece accepted, nor knowing that it would be one of the favorite operas in the world.
“If you like opera which has everything, you will like Carmen“said Barclay.” If you like opera which has great shows and great stages of color, movement and pageantry, you’ll love Carmen. If you go to the opera for the rising emotion and the extremes of human passion – love, frustration, jealousy, anger – you will find it all in Carmen as well as.
“Carmen will satisfy all opera lovers: it’s intellectual; it’s emotional; and it is really good musical theater entertainment.
Bizet’s Opera Australia production Carmen will be staged at the Canberra Theater Center, Thursday July 8 to Saturday July 10 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday mornings at 1 p.m.