Posted by: aboutalbion | March 4, 2013

Carmen: beware of an adventuress

My big (70th) birthday season continued last Saturday with Margaret’s main present to me.  She booked box seats for us at the matinee performance of my favourite opera, ‘Carmen’, in the round (and in English) at the Royal Albert Hall, London.  In a word it was a magnificent experience.

I had never been to the Royal Albert Hall before …  I’m glad that I have now.  It is an amazing performance space to go into …  It is so large, yet everything and everyone is so near …  And, as a science person, I noted that it was elliptical in plan.  I asked myself about the number of public spaces in the UK that are elliptical in plan …  (That might be another post.)

I think my enjoyment of this opera is due in no small measure to Bizet’s wide range of tuneful music appropriate to the many twists and turns of the plot as it unfolds.  And the music last Saturday was played so well by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Why is Carmen so (relatively) popular?  Well, I (as a male) am inclined to follow the simple view that the main character of the opera is Don Jose.

At the beginning of the opera, we are introduced to Don Jose as a low-ranking public service employee [a corporal in the army] who has (at home in the country) a devoted mother, and a loyal plain girlfriend [Micaela] of whom his mother approves.  The opera is a tragedy.  So as the opera unfolds, Don Jose (whose head is turned by a woman who can turn a million heads) changes from a public servant with an income (Act 1), to a truant (by the end of Act 2), to a common criminal (Act 3), and finally to a murderer (at the end of Act 4).

[One big, big moan …  Why, oh why, did the director (David Freeman) make Don Jose a murderer at the end of Act 2?  The libretto I consulted has (at the end of Act 2) the smugglers taking Lt Zuniga (against whom Cpl Don Jose has just drawn a sword) hostage.  Instead, this production shows Don Jose fatally knifing Zuniga.  To me, this torpedoes the trajectory of the tragedy of Don Jose’s gradual descent through the opera towards murder in the final moments.  In this production, after the first murder, there is no change in Don Jose’s character …  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  Yes, David, I am aware that in Bizet’s source for his plot – Merimee’s novella ‘Carmen’ – the character that becomes Don Jose is a multiple murderer.  However, in my opinion, there is ample evidence that Bizet created a rather different storyline to that of Merimee.]

For me, the character of Carmen [who is reputed to change her man every 40 days] belongs to an imaginary world …  she is a Siren.  And I suppose that this begins to explain why there is no interpretation of the role that has received widespread critical endorsement.

Both Carmen and Don Jose sing about love.  For Carmen, love is about freedom – ‘Love is a rebellious bird that no-one can tame …’.  For Don Jose, love is about the future – ‘Yes, together we are going to begin another life, far from here, under new skies!’.  For myself, genuine love integrates previous attempts to love into the present, and is better expressed in Lord Byron’s words that I put in my last post (yesterday).  ‘They say that Hope is happiness — But genuine Love must prize the past …’

In the Royal Albert Hall, there was a bonus with an ‘in the round’ production.  There were major (upper) and minor (lower) acting spaces tastefully connected with a sweeping sigmoid promenade.  So with this arrangement, both the outside and the inside of the cigarette factory in Act 1, and of the bull ring in Act 2, were shown.  This was a great leap forward over the usual proscenium arch settings because significant events happen both inside the factory and the bullring.

So this birthday treat was seventy years in the making, and it was well worth waiting for.

The take away message from ‘Carmen’ for males is concisely express in the advice: “Beware of an adventuress”.  Alternatively, this can be derived from a sentence found in the Jewish Scriptures at (what is known in the West as) Proverbs 23:27:

“For a harlot is a deep pit;
an adventuress is a narrow well.”


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