Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > The History of Carmen (Bizet)
The History of "Carmen"
The Opera by Georges Bizet
The first production of "Carmen" took place at the Opera Comique, Paris, on the 3rd of March 1875. There was a crowded attendance on the occasion, including "all of Paris that assumes to have any voice in the creation of public opinion." But nobody seems to have thought much of the opera then -- this opera which has now become the property of every amateur throughout the civilized world, and which though often presented, never wears out its welcome. It is not very difficult to understand why. French audiences are essentially conservative, and "Carmen" came upon them like a shock. "Its passionate force," says one authority, "was miscalled brutality, and the suspicion of German influence which Bizets clever use of guiding themes excited, was in itself enough to alienate the sympathies of the average Frenchman in the early seventies." Bizet, in short, had broken loose from the classical French style. His music displayed some startling, novel features, and for these the polite tastes of the French public were not prepared.
Poster for the 1875 premiere of Carmen at the Opéra Comique, Paris, France
As the opera went on -- we are speaking of the first performance -- the public remained puzzled and cold. A few sympathizers "ventured to applaud here and there. The quintet and the Toreadors Song made a favourable impression, and the prelude of the second Act was encored. Beyond this, approval did not go, the curtain falling upon what could be called, at best, a success of esteem." When some twelve or fifteen representations had been given, the work revived somewhat, but the stupidly unjust verdict of the premier performance (mostly confirmed by the Press, too) could not be lived down. The receipts rose, but less because the public liked the music than because they went to see what had been described as an immoral piece! Thus "Carmen" painfully reached its thirty-seventh representation. Musical history records plenty of similar examples, but none so sad; for Bizet died three months after his "Carmen" has been thus coldly received, and just before it began its triumphal progress.
To comprehend such an attitude, so obviously unjust, one must assume a momentary eclipse of taste -- strange, inexplicable, but real phenomenon. We recall the fate, at Vienna, in 1788, of "Don Giovanni," one of the greatest masterpieces of human genius. How could we explain that fate except by the phenomenon just alluded to? Mozart, sad, discouraged, said mournfully: "I have written Don Giovanni for myself and two or three friends." Pigot becomes sarcastic over the matter as regards Bizet. "It is," he says, "in France that, above all, we have the questionable privilege of these transient errors. We turn our backs on sincere and spontaneous admiration. How many sad recollections of this I could mention, but am content to evoke the great shade of Berlioz. For Berlioz, as for Bizet, the hour of justice comes slowly. Neither has attained a definite triumph. Bizet is dead, and carried to the tomb the cruel uncertainly of doubt. He did not enjoy, like his predecessor, the consolation of applause heard from beyond the frontiers; he perished before Carmen began the triumphal progress which, at last, made us open our eyes." Of course we must remember that this was written before "Carmen" gained its present phenomenal vogue with the great opera-going public.
It was really with the first performance (in Italian) of the opera in England that the now enormous popularity of "Carmen" may be said to have begun. This performance took place on the 22nd of June 1878, with Miss Minnie Hauck, the young American prima donna, as the exponent of the title-role. There is a very interesting account of the performance in Mr. Herman Kleins "Thirty Years of Musical Life in London." Mr. Klein was a prominent musical critic, and he went to hear "Carmen" in the company of Signor Garcia, the grand old man of music, who died in 1906 after celebrating the 101st anniversary of his birth. It was not an easy thing at that time to persuade Garcia to go to the Opera. But an opera on a Spanish subject was an attraction, especially if it touched on bull-fighting, which appears to stir the blood of every Spaniard, young or old. On the way to the theatre Mr. Klein reminded his companion that "Carmen" had been next door to a failure at the Opéra Comique three years before. "I know," replied Garcia, "and the poor composer died of a broken heart three months later. That is the way France generally treats rising talent, including her own. I place little value on the opinion of Paris regarding new works."
The only bit of "Carmen" then known in London was the "Habanera," which has been sung for a year or so with notable success by Mme. Trebelli. The "Habanera," as a matter of fact, is a popular Spanish melody introduced by Bizet into his score, and he was aggravated when it was singled out for special praise. The Toreador Song, which eventually helped so much to render "Carmen" popular in every country, had not yet been heard in England. Bizet was practically an unknown composer; while the fact of his being a Frenchman was, in the opinion of Garcia (a Spaniard) distinctly against him as an indication of ability to write or imitate Spanish music. This is a curious point. Mr. Klein reminds us that the general feeling on the subject in Spain amounts almost to a national prejudice. To this day "Carmen," although greatly liked and frequently performed, is less intensely popular in Spain than in other countries. At the same time, we may perhaps allow that it takes a born Spaniard to recognise the extremely delicate nuances that distinguish the real native article from the clever foreign imitation.
At this first London performance "Carmen" was both well cast and well staged. Mr. Mapleson, the lessee of Her Majestys, had seen it at the Brussels Monnaie during the preceding winter, and it was on the strength of the success won there, alike by the work and by Miss Haucks representation of the leading character, that he had determined to transfer both to the boards of Her Majestys. The American artists "Carmen" was already famous; and London was delighted with the finish, the vivacity, and the charm of the performance. It was realised that she had caught with marvelous instinct and truth the peculiarities of the Spanish type, the coquettish manners, and the defiant devilry of the wayward gipsy. The "Escamillo" -- and an altogether ideal one -- was that fine baritone, Del Puente; while Campanini sang and acted with superb dramatic power as Don Jose. What names these were! And then Sir Michael Costa was the conductor! It was a notable performance altogether: to be remembered with honour and grateful feelings, since from that moment, as before remarked, dates the real popularity of the opera in Europe.
"Carmen" was produced at the same theatre in French in November 1886, with Mme. Galli-Marié, the original creator, in the leading character. The Carl Rosa Company produced it in English, also at Her Majestys, in February 1878, when Mme. Marie Roze took the part of the heroine.
Carmen is a rôle that exercises a great fascination over artists. It offers so many opportunities and can be played (and sung too) in so many different ways. There are four elements in Carmens character: she was a daughter of the people, she was a reckless flirt, she was full of passion, and she was superstitious. The differences between one Carmen and another resolve themselves into a question of the greater or lesser prominence given to one or other of these. One is a greater flirt and more heartless; the other is more sensual; the third more plebeian. Some Carmens love Don José and merely play with Escamillo; others love Escamillo and regard Don José as a bore. Mme. Rozes assumption emphasised the "brutal animalism" of the gipsy less than that of Minnie Hauck, but the latters representation of the character has been followed upon more or less identical lines by many excellent artists, including Pauline Lucca, Emma Calvé, and Zelié de Lussan.