Of all operas, Carmen must rank as perhaps the most 'basic' in that it has all the elements needed to create the essential opera experience, with it's necessary excesses and hyperbolic framing of life lived on the edge, of passion driven to musical catharsis. It is 'the' tale of temptation, sexual lust, seduction, inevitable betrayal, and murderous denouement. It casts the the spectre of the destructive female libido, of the 'dangerous woman' so much feared by polite bourgeoisie moral social strictures. And of course the victim Don Jose in this case is an almost hapless male protagonist: certainly his basic potential for lusting after Carmen is his own, but it is stoked by this elemental femme fatale, who exploits his weakness, almost as an effort to prove to herself her ability to do so. This must have provoked some outrage.
Carmen seems almost like a force of nature, a serial femme fatale, that seems to go through successive men in her quest for fulfillment.
In 19th Century European culture, where there actually was a social milieu in high society that occasionally identified and tolerated such female adventurers, they could frequently wreck the lives of the men they were able to beguile: the courtesans, the libidinously oriented society debutantes, the ladies that wanted to test their own powers.
Here the social context has been stripped away and the story unfolds in the relatively exotic Spanish contemporary hinterland, without the restraints of any class society: a slice of supposedly raw, real-life. This reality-approach scenario is a parallel development with the growing Italian 'verismo' trend of showing real people in real situations.
The plot is almost brutally basic. Vamp seduces innocent, who leaves 'everything' behind to be with her, especially his purer-than-the-driven-snow girlfriend, a diametric contrast, to the vamp. The innocent is drawn into a life of crime until the vamp tires of him as soon as she sees a more exciting prospect. Jealousy drives Don Jose to stab Carmen so no one can have her.
The prosaic 'provincial Spanish' context, however, provides the mise-en-scene with amazing opportunities to create a dazzling scenic spectacle of colour and action, with the opening crowded with soldiers, urchins, cigarette girls, and urban festivities, and the unbearably tense final confrontation at the corrida, with Carmen and Don Jose alone but within eye and earshot of the crowds watching the bullfight.
Et voila, one of the most enduring operas ever to have hit the stage.
Even with this almost perfect operatic work there are, however, problems few notice or may want to be aware of.
This is obviously a shortcoming that has not stood in the way of making Carmen into the 'basic' opera for most fans. The music is perhaps the best known opera music in existence since many of these most catchy tunes have gone into the popular mind 'at large'.
Carmen was the default opera in the much syndicated TV show Gilligan's Island, and it's writers tried to find creative ways of mentioning it or bringing it into the story somehow. It was one of the many obsessive little features that made me detest this show. With all it's popularity, it is difficult to keep Carmen away from being dismissed as cheap, but that is only an illusion. It is the opera with the most 'reality' in it.
Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.