May 24, 2018

Carmen: Behind the Score

Currently in Europe, the Romani people are a huge presence in major towns and cities. They can be found absolutely everywhere – from selling things in the town squares to sitting on church steps asking for a coin. Also known colloquially as gypsies, the Romani have been a culture for well over a thousand years according to some sources, originating from a single group that had left northwestern India. These people will often live off the land for free and move around nomadically as a group. The Romani also have their own language which has roots in Sanskrit, though many have lost their knowledge of pure Romani and simply incorporate parts of it into the languages of the countries they live in.

Many Romani have suffered forced assimilation, public persecution and slavery, and were even captured during the Holocaust. Discrimination against the Romani people has continued to this day and, due to many living in poor conditions, their poor behavior toward citizens and tourists, as well as rising crime in the areas they live in, have caused many countries to go to drastic lengths to remove them – including forced repatriation and even sterilization.

In addition to French composer Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, the Romani are depicted in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Othello, and The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Carmen was actually written based off of a novella, or short story, written by French writer Prosper Mérimée, who wrote a letter to the Countess of Montijo, who had previously told Mérimée a story about a gypsy woman on his visit to Spain in 1830.

In his letter, he wrote passionately to her about his inspiration: "It was about that ruffian from Málaga who had killed his mistress. As I have been studying the Gypsies for some time, I have made my heroine a Gypsy." An important source for the material on the Romani people that Mérimée had used was George Borrow's book The Zincali written in 1841. Another source may have been the narrative poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin, written in 1824, which Mérimée would later translate into French prose. Gypsies during the time were seen as very exotic and, though many people still feared for their pocketbooks, many were also still intrigued by their culture and freedom to live how they pleased.

Bizet, along with the writers of Carmen’s libretto, or lyrics, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, were also passionately moved by the storytelling in Mérimée’s novella, which, in short, is about the feisty and, frankly, mega-attractive Romani woman, Carmen, who lived in Seville, Spain. Carmen became engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with the bullfighter, Escamillo, her admirer, Don José, and Don José’s previous love interest, Micaëla. Don José is essentially driven to madness by the plights of Carmen who causes Don José to have bouts of extreme jealousy turning the chase into tragedy. Carmen herself foreshadows the dangers of passion in her now-famous aria, “Habanera”, where she related love itself to “a rebellious bird that none can tame” and also to “a gypsy child that has never, ever known the law”.

Much like many Shakespearean comedies and tragedies, the characters of Carmen take on a few of the same tropes in the European style of theatre known as the commedia dell’arte. For instance, Carmen and Don Jose take on some of the roles of the Inammorati, or the lovers, who are supposed to be very dapper and engaging and just a bit ridiculous in their innocence to love. The bullfighter, Escamillo, takes on the role of Il Capitano, or the Captain, who would generally be a loner of sorts but be widely considered as rather a slayer of hearts. A famous example of Il Capitano would be Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Lastly, Micaëla acts in part as Colombina, usually a maid or young maiden who acts as a confidant to the audience and helps moves the plot along with the lovers or the scheming of dubious characters. Many of these traditional stock roles are broken in Carmen, which of course causes the plotline to become more twisted and surprising as the audience continues watching.

Touching on the music of Carmen: although Bizet himself had never been to Spain at the time, he composed many of the arias heard in the opera based on folk songs including his inspiration for “Habanera”, which was a folk song by the Spanish composer Sebastián Yradier entitled “El Arreglito”. Bizet also sought out appropriate material to research proper rhythm and instrumentation in order to better give the score an element of traditional flamenco style sound.

Carmen will often imitate on stage playing the castanets as the orchestra plays, which were often used by Spanish dancers to add percussion to their movements. The bugle or horn sound is heavily featured throughout the opera, as well, and it can be assumed that the bugle is the pull of responsibility that Don José is fighting with against the wild and free-spiritedness of Carmen’s castanets.

Carmen does an excellent job in showing the presence of the Romani people in Europe as well as tearing down traditional roles of women who, at the time, were expected to cater more to the expectations of society. Carmen simply refuses, throughout the production, to do what is expected of her. While Carmen may end in tragedy, it is important to note her strong force in breaking down those traditional barriers, both in the commedia dell’arte and in the society during Bizet’s time. Initial reactions to the opera’s premiere in 1874 were ones of shock at the drastic realism of the opera to give each of the characters an element of flawed morality. In essence, Carmen was a head-turner simply for giving an accurate screenshot of how humans are constantly swayed by passion and impulse.

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