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The Allure of Carmen

La tragédie de Carmen at Theatre Project

by Roger Brunyate

  Theda Bara as Carmen
Theda Bara as Carmen
From the moment she first came into being in Prosper Mérimée’s story of 1845, the gypsy Carmen has retained a powerful hold on the popular imagination, in music, theatre, film, and dance. Of all her reincarnations, the one that did most to propel the fiery heroine to international notoriety was Georges Bizet’s opera of 1875, despite (or possibly because of) its inauspicious premiere which outraged the audience with Carmen’s blatant sexuality and amoral nature. But it quickly went on to become one of the most frequently performed operas of all time.

Given a reputation launched with such richness of sound and color as is found in traditional productions of the Bizet opera, it may be surprising that Carmen also flourished in black-and-white silent movies. There are references to a Gaumont short about her as early as 1900, in the first years of the cinema as a narrative medium. Two rival Carmens appeared in 1915: the one featuring silent-screen vamp Theda Bara is now lost, but the other, directed by the young Cecil B. DeMille and starring Geraldine Farrar, has been preserved. Charlie Chaplin came out with a brief burlesque version in the next year, and in 1918 Ernst Lubitsch produced his own take on the story: Gypsy Blood, featuring Pola Negri, who portrays the character with a gritty realism far removed from the glamour of the opera stage.

Geraldine Farrar as Carmen  
Geraldine Farrar as Carmen
It is probable, of course, that cinema pianists would have accompanied screenings of these movies with selections from Bizet’s music. Indeed DeMille’s choice of Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar for his heroine seems intended to play on this parallel, even though cinema audiences would not be able to hear her. The introduction of sound into movies was immediately celebrated by another version, The Loves of Carmen, directed by Raoul Walsh (the director of the Theda Bara silent), and starring Dolores del Rio and Victor McLaglen. There was no singing, of course, but Hugo Riesenfeld’s score did incorporate substantial passages of Bizet, although for copyright reasons these never accompany the same action as in the opera. The 1948 remake of The Loves of Carmen, directed by Charles Vidor and starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, is closer to Mérimée and has almost no relationship to the Bizet.

  Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones
Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones
with Harry Belafonte as Joe
In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein II presented the musical Carmen Jones on Broadway, where it ran for 502 performances. Otto Preminger made it into a movie in 1954, starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, whose songs were performed by the young Marilyn Horne. Influenced, perhaps, by Porgy and Bess, Hammerstein moved the action to the all-black milieu of parachute-packers and GIs in a Southern town; Escamillo, the toreador who is Carmen’s final lover in the opera, becomes Husky Miller, a prizefighter. Hammerstein had the knack of writing lyrics which, though perhaps offending the opera-going stiff-shirts, exactly match the rhythmic impulse of the music, as in “Beat out dat rhythm on a drum” for the gypsy dance that opens Act II and “Whizzin’ away along de track” for the Act III quintet. (The present writer cannot be the only person to have been introduced to “real” opera through seeing this movie at a formative age!)

Beyonce Knowles in Carmen: a Hip Hopera  
Beyoncé Knowles
The impulse to update the story to contemporary settings continues to this day, as in the 2000 dance-drama The Car Man by Matthew Bourne, who sets the action in a garage in the sixties, and Robert Townsend’s 2001 MTV musical Carmen: a Hip Hopera, starring Beyoncé Knowles and set in the inner-city gangsta-rap world.

Through all these diverse versions there runs the paradox of realism versus glamour. Mérimée’s story is distinguished by its realistic portrayal of lower-class life on the fringes of the law. And yet the exoticism of this milieu lends it a kind of glamour, which eventually swamps the realism. At the time he wrote in 1845, Spain was still very much terra incognita to most Frenchmen, a country of strange customs protected by high mountains roamed by lawless bandits: the guerrillas who had successfully kept even Napoleon’s armies at bay. The actual story of Carmen takes up only one of the four chapters of Mérimée’s tale; the rest are a kind of frame designed to emphasize the difficulty of the penetrating to the heart of this doubly strange culture, at once Spanish and Romany.

  Engraving by Edouard Manet
Spanish Dancer
Engraving by Manet (c.1865)
By the time Bizet wrote in 1875, however, Napoleon’s nephew had taken the throne as Napoleon III and married a Spanish princess, Eugenia de Montijo, and suddenly all things Spanish became the rage, though emasculated by a picturesque folkloricism. Although Bizet’s opera was written quasi-realistically as an opéra comique with spoken dialogues, it still contains numerous episodes of travelogue spectacle, especially in its many choruses and dances. When Bizet died shortly after the premiere, a lesser composer, Ernest Giraud, was asked to write recitatives to replace the dialogues. This moved the work firmly into the realm of grand opera, where it has become a kind of French Aïda, drawing audiences as much by the spectacle of its production as by the central core of its drama.

It was this core that the English director Peter Brook wanted to expose anew when he presented his version, La tragédie de Carmen, in Paris in 1981. Brook had his own theater, the Bouffes du Nord, in a seedy district close to the Gare du Nord, and had built up his own style of drama: direct, intimate, and challenging. Although larger than Baltimore Theatre Project, where the Peabody Chamber Opera will be presenting Brook’s version, the Parisian space has the similar advantages of unusually close audience seating and magnificent natural acoustics, combined with the challenge of lack of space for a large cast, let alone a chorus or full orchestra. Together with the playwright Jean-Claude Carrière and composer Marius Constant. Brook shaped a new version, retaining much of Bizet’s music, though re-orchestrating it, and reducing the dramatis personae to four singers and two actors. In short, he resolved the paradox by returning emphatically to the realism of Mérimée’s novella.

And yet La tragédie de Carmen does not follow the story in all respects. It keeps the narrative of Carmen and Don José, the soldier whom she first ensnares and then destroys (though meeting her own death in the process), but makes it even tighter than in either the book or the opera. It retains the opera’s elevation of Escamillo from a common picador to a famous matador. It also retains the character of Micaëla, José’s hometown sweetheart, an invention of Bizet’s librettists which Brook thought necessary to establish the innocence of Don José which Carmen corrupts; in this version, Carmen fights Micaëla physically and marks her with a knife. In all other respects, however, Brook’s José is closer to Mérimée’s in that by the end he will have several deaths to his account, and not just the murder of Carmen.

In the Bizet opera, that death is given a stirring theatrical setting, at the climax of a fierce argument outside the very bull-ring where the crowds are cheering for Escamillo. Brook keeps the argument, but places the death in a postlude, in a deserted place to which José leads the unresisting Carmen. It is trancelike, almost a ritual. In this, he is going back to Mérimée, whose Carmen is obsessed by the inevitability of fate, and it is fate, rather than passion, which frames Brook’s version. Even more than a Spanish theme, this is a Romany one. Indeed, one of the things that is so strong in Mérimée is that, though living in Spain, both Carmen and José are outsiders, the one a gypsy, the other a Basque. While Bizet’s Carmen revels in the exotic color of the Spanish setting, Brook’s version dissects the characters within it, showing them at close distance and with compelling force.


La tragédie de Carmen was presented by the Peabody Chamber Opera at Theatre Project between January 31 and February 3, 2002. John Lehmeyer was the director and Benjamin Loeb the conductor. Carmen was played by Patricia Portillo and Laura Virella, Don José by Steven A. Hensley and Israel Lozano, Micaëla by Erin Cavanaugh and Sara Stewart, and Escamillo by Ryan de Ryke and James Rogers.

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