Today I want to tell you about Carmen and her story.
Let’s begin the story with Don José, the Spanish brigadier who paid his mother a favour by deciding to marry Micaela, the classic “good girl next door” in his town.
One day, along with his colleagues, Don José finds himself having to stop a brawl between “cigarette girls”. He is struck by the charm of a gypsy girl, our Carmen, who is about to go to prison. Once she is in prison, though, she enchants José with a seductive dance, which then “forces” him to let her escape.
Even though she’s a bit confused and also attracted to the bullfighter Escamillo, Carmen decides to meet with Don José again, and convinces him to run away with her. After a short while, though, the relationship becomes troublesome: José becomes even more jealous than he already is, and Carmen’s restlessness makes her feel trapped.
Meanwhile, the poor, abandoned Micaela finds Don José and successfully convinces him to come back to her. Carmen decides to return to Seville with Escamillo.
The troubled relationship between the two doesn’t finish there, though, as they run into each other again in Seville. During one of Escamillo’s bullfights, José asks Carmen to run away with him again. After Carmen’s scathing refusal, José stabs her to death.
It seems like a sad story you’d hear about in the news, doesn’t it?
Instead, it’s from Carmen, a novel by Prosper Merimée (1845), which was successful thanks to Georges Bizet’s homonymous opera, which debuted in Paris on March 3rd, 1875. Carmen is one of history’s biggest masterpieces, not only in terms of its musical composition, but also because of the art itself, of which so much can be said and explored.
Let’s start with the various features that make Carmen a true masterpiece. Not only is it a fairly contemporary work given its dynamics, but it’s truly a masterpiece that has given way to all of the great works that followed. The setting in Spain gives the protagonists a Mediterranean flair, which allowed for the opera’s passionate, sensuous scenes.
The fact that the protagonist is a gypsy, combined with redundant music (accompanying the opera’s entire plot), which underlines Carmen’s sad and miserable fate, in addition to a dynamic score rich with notes and scales referencing the oriental music experience, is what makes Bizet’s opera such a masterpiece.
However, the truth is that Carmen’s character, exactly as it is, was scandalous. It had to be kept away from Paris (where, let’s face it: similar things happened, but under a different ruse that wasn’t as blatant). Let’s not underestimate the ethnical component at hand—Carmen represents a subject that was embarrassing for that era, since it gives a woman the power to decide for herself, to be and to become exactly what she wants—even if she’s a gypsy! Carmen is a tragic heroine.
We find everything in just three bars of the opera: destiny, Arabism, and tragedy. We’re in the nineteenth century, and Bizet is able to give us women who smoke, who are moved by emotions, and who show us their true instincts and passion for life.
For the first time in the history of opera, we’re faced with the representation of freedom in love, a theme which until then had frequently been censored—especially when it came to the musical field. What’s more, is that in 1875, this freedom of love was exercised by a woman—Carmen. It was a woman who was free to choose who to love and who to seduce, and she would not sacrifice her own freedom! She was a shameless woman who didn’t care about rules and social roles; Carmen is an exhibitionist who exercises her personal independence.
Jamais Carmen ne cédera !
Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra !
Carmen will never give up!
She was born free, and she will die free!
Carmen is a very strong, sensual, and unconventional character who is absolutely modern. In fact, she’s often compared to the female version of a Don Juan. But what ever happened to this scandalously avant-garde woman?
Once the scandal passed, Carmen served as a point of reference for all contemporary composers and philosophers from Bizet, Nietzsche, Wagner, Brahms, and Čajkovskij. All of history’s greatest opera singers from Paris to New York’s Metropolitan aspired to play the part of Carmen: a true icon of mental and sexual freedom.
Carmen was, and still is, important and fundamental—because at the end of the day, Carmen is one of us.