Great moments in opera: Carmen

December 16, 2009

Bizet’s Carmen is another famous opera that I do not know well.  Prior to this week I had heard it just once, so I decided to look at it again.  It was Bizet’s final major work, and, because its 1875 premiere was a failure — the Paris audience judged, very curiously for a score that sparkles and dances as this one does, that it was too “Wagnerian” — he died thinking that it, and he, would fade into obscurity.  Today it is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire.

Carmen is blessed not only with wonderful music, but (what is rarer in opera) also a strong libretto.  The story, set in Seville in the early 1800s, concerns a corporal, Don José, whose love for a sweet young woman, Micaela, is threatened when he falls under the spell of a seductive and dangerous gypsy woman — Carmen herself.  Carmen is a magnificent creation: a femme fatale, reckless, passionate, and beautiful.  She lures him away from Micaela, drawing him into a course of action that ultimately brings them both to ruin.

The most famous pieces from Carmen are undoubtedly the galloping overture, Carmen’s entrance aria (the Habanera), and the song of the Toreador.  Since they are sufficiently well-known, and considering that the opera has numerous other worthy numbers, I will not focus on them [*].  Instead, let me draw attention to two other sections which appealed to me as I was listening.

In Act I we are introduced to Don José and Micaela.  She brings him letters from home, and he reminisces about the village where he grew up.  Bizet gives them a gorgeous duet, Ma mère, je la vois! Here it is sung by Franco Corelli and Mirella Freni.  Singing like this doesn’t come along every day:

Near the end of Act I we have the scene in which Carmen seduces Don José.  She has just been arrested for knifing another worker in the factory where she is employed, and Don José has been charged with guarding her.  In this aria, Près des remparts de Séville, she convinces him to remove her bonds, which later permits her to escape.  Here is Agnes Baltsa with José Carreras in a production from the Metropolitan Opera:

The particular recording to which I listened this week was Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1959 version with Victoria de los Angeles singing the title role and Nicolai Gedda as Don José.  I also borrowed and watched portions of the Metropolitan Opera DVD from which the second clip above is taken.  I enjoyed both.

[*] But that doesn’t mean I can ignore them entirely: Overture, Habanera, Toreador.

3 Responses to “Great moments in opera: Carmen

  1. KathyB Says:

    A few years ago I was in the chorus for a performance of Carmen in concert. “Pres des Ramparts…” is one of my favourite arias. It will now run through my head for several days.

  2. cburrell Says:

    You were in an opera chorus? I have often thought that I would like to do that. One doesn’t have to sing very well (in my imagination, at least, although admittedly you sing much better than me so the evidence is not directly in my favour), and being good at reading music (which I am not) is irrelevant, since everything is memorized anyway.

    Also, it seems sneaky. Forget sitting in the front row — the chorus actually gets to go onstage and look around, and nobody minds. It sounds like fun.

  3. KathyB Says:

    As a man, if you can at all carry a tune, you can likely find yourself a place in an opera chorus somewhere. It’s difficult, however, if you don’t read music well, simply because many companies try to put these things together with as few rehearsals as possible. I know a few places in the Toronto area where you could audition.


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