Bizet: Carmen (1875) (Metropolitan Opera 1987)

Agnes Baltsa is apparently a great singer, though I wouldn’t know since this is the first opera I’ve ever audited, but what I do know, without a doubt, is that she’s too old for the role of Carmen. To be sure, all four of the leads in the 1987 Met version of Carmen are vastly too old for their roles. All the makeup in the world doesn’t hide it, and I become fairly uncomfortable watching them prance around performing the roles of teenagers, really sexy teenagers, and I keep thinking of Hamlet telling his mother “you cannot call it love; for at your age / The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment.” And I cry, and I cry, and I cry, and I cry.

A note by the Royal Opera House mentioned that contemporary reviews found the music replete with dissonance, which is difficult to imagine in an age when Carmen feels like a three-hour salad dressing commercial (by the way: salad comes from the Latin for ‘salt’–which means that a plate of vegetables is nothing but a plate of vegetables until you dress it, fool). A note by the San Francisco Opera described Carmen’s death as being the ultimate act of love for herself and Don José. I don’t see any evidence for this, partially because Carmen reads her fate in the cards and only afterwards seems bent on seeking its reality. But most of all, I think she’s just a fickle whore for whom such an ending, if truly an act of love, is too good.

Anyway, seeing as I don’t know anything about opera and thus shouldn’t make comments, I’ll briefly mention the things I find interesting about the character of Micaela:

“To illustrate: opera, as a matter of convention, demands solo voices…a soprano, contralto, tenor and bass in primary roles; there are vocal combinations of these four timbres, a chorus, orchestral interludes and accompaniments. The heroine, Carmen, conceived by the composer as a contralto, needed the light, lyric quality of a soprano voice as a foil. Mérimée’s gypsy had no female rival, so that Bizet felt obliged to invent one: Micaela” (Nowinski).

“The most frequently criticized artistic concession, on the part of Bizet, is his creation of Micaela. She springs to life, fully grown like Athena, based on a single mention in Mérimée. Purists invariably conclude that she represents a violation of the author’s original story. Don José’s reminiscence of a Basque maiden is simply personified–a legitimate, conventional tool, used by dramatists. Seen in this light, and as a vocal foil for Carmen’s contralto voice, Micaela assumes genuine validity.”

I need a soprano, so how about an imaginary soprano who always knows where to find Don José, with whom other characters don’t particularly interact (except the soldiers at the outset, the situation that, according to San Francisco Opera, illustrates her pluck and tenacity), who acts as a convenient reminder of an absent mother, and disappears when the protagonist forgets to shave. Micaela. These are loose ends, that we don’t know what becomes of her, or the mother, and unfortunately I just don’t care.

And that’s the problem so far. When I see this I feel like I’m watching ART. Levine waves at the audience before each act, and after each act the players come out and bow and hold hands and we’re constantly reminded, as if their wrinkles didn’t do it for us, that this isn’t real. It’s ART. They each spent a minimum of five years learning how to breathe properly, and the emotions they draw from us aren’t nearly so important as the emotions we imagine should be drawn from us. It’s heavy-handed.

“Complex problems confront us when we seek to define ‘meaning.’ . . .Cone maintains that when the [composer] sets a poem to music, he actually chooses ‘one among all its forms,’ that ‘he delimits one sub-set within the complete set of all possible forms.’ This unique concept, Cone suggests, ‘might be termed a latent form of the poem; and . . . the composer’s task is to make the latent form patent by presenting it through the more specific, inflexible, and immediate medium of music.’ In summary, he asserts: ‘Ultimately there can be only one justification for the serious composition of a song; it must be an attempt to increase our understanding of the poem.’“

This reminds me of the second line in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise: “His father, an ineffectual, inarticulate man with a taste for Byron,” a line that effects in me considerable discomfort. Art must be created for somebody, mustn’t it? I mean, somebody who gleans something more than cocktail-talk from it. And to sit here and watch an orchestra of secretaries, and a stage of secretaries (witness: Micaela’s two minutes of sighs and breast-clutching as she awaits the audience to shut the hell up), and to be told that This is ART, this is brilliance…I simply cannot believe it. Anything gained or understood from this must be purely from our own expectations of its gravity and depth, not from what’s actually there. What should be a combination of all these forms at their greatest heights rather feels like mediocrity, mediocrity, mediocrity, and I feel nothing, though I swear I try.

Anyway, I suppose what I’m getting at is that I enjoy What a Girl Wants so much because even if I don’t believe it, I can at least pretend to believe it because Amanda Bynes’ prettiness merits it. I pretend because I want it to be real because she’s pretty. So, in short, if opera is to gain my adoration, either the players must become younger, or the stories all have to be about old people and whatever their concerns happen to be, I dunno, groceries or Medicare.

Obviously, I saw the 1987 version from the Met. I read “Sense and Sound in Georges Bizet’s Carmen”, by Judith Nowinski. The French Review © 1970. And the lectures I heard from the Royal Opera House and the San Francisco Opera, I honestly don’t have any details on them.

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