La Carmençita

Lucca’s “communal theatre” il Giglio was heavily slated earlier this year for not putting on any Puccini operas in its current “stagione lirica”. It takes courage to do this in the face of the city’s generally conservative musical clientele. In compensation, Lucca citizens got three great works, one of which, Bizet’s Carmen, must rate for all sentient beings as the opera for those can’t stand opera. There’s everything in it from children horse-playing to fortune-card reading to seduction to banditry to filial sentimentality to bullfighting and last, but not least, a stage murder which still send currents of horror to audiences in our de-sensitised age. And all this clothed in some of the most wonderfully tuneful, sensuous and dramatic music ever composed (even more glorious in the Giglio theatre’s lucky acoustics).

Poor Bizet! The story that he died of a broken heart (at age 37,) when the first night of his Carmen created a scandal regarding its overt sexuality and unveiled realism among uncomprehending critics and audiences, is slightly overdone for he did, at least, manage to see that the opera, on which he lavished so much preparation, would somehow make an impact and, perhaps, even become popular!

And an impact Carmen has certainly had! Without it I cannot imagine anything coming out of the Italian verismo school and indeed, the opening chorus of act two bears an uncanny feel to the same act (near the Paris customs gate) of Puccini’s La Bohème written over twenty years later. The exoticism, already apparent in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers (with its pseudo-orientalising scales) becomes truly genuine here and is transmuted into an Iberian feel which even home-grown Spanish operas could envy. The seguidilla and many other arias are so well-known and felt to be so “Spanish” that it is difficult to realise that Bizet never actually visited Spain!

The production and performance, while not being quite top-notch, was sufficiently persuasive to carry me willingly off into that world of gypsies, soldiers, bandits and femme fatales for the almost four hours of the evening which, given the good viewing but cramped seating conditions in the theatre’s platea, is essential! (Every interval was respected so while the performance started, as is customary in Italy round about 9 pm, it finished close to one in the morning)

I am glad that the production was given with the spoken dialogues rather Giraud’s accompanied recitatives (this truly restoring Carmen to opera-comique status). I had issues with the singer of Michaela at the start and some of the minor roles. The children were well-trained, receiving a deservedly loud applause and the “eternal” triangle was quite convincingly sung with the horrific denouement amply chilling.

Indeed, that denouement where, after Don José’s ineffectual pleading to Carmen never to leave him and where she bluntly states that she loves another (that Toreador again) was very forcefully done with the bull-fight fans, normally absent from the scene, coming in with their chairs and sitting in a semi-circle as impassive spectators of the murder which, in current Italian parlance, would be termed “femminicidio” (women-murder).

Indeed, in 2012 one hundred women in Italy were killed by their jealous partners, husbands or exes. This year the figure of an average of one woman killed every three days by a man unable to realise that, like Carmen declared over one hundred and thirty years ago, women, too, have a natural right to freedom and liberty in their relationships and are not mere chattels or servants, shows no sign of declining.

(Incidentally, the United Nations General Assembly has designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women).

Giglio’s Carmen production, therefore, came over not as the traditional “poor bloke reacting to an unrepentant flirt” but as a “bastard guy who never realised the right of women to freedom of choice in their partners.” This interpretation was emphasized by the production’s  time-setting which, judging by its costumes and women’s fashions, seemed to be set in a late forties early fifties post-war Italian setting – very much like Italian neo-realist films in fact.

I think this second attitude is what really shocked the original audience back in 1875. It wasn’t just the contemporary scenario of the story (no standard mythological or historical period for Carmen – it’s as contemporary as Merrimé’s story on which it is based.) It was the message, the prophetic message that a male-centred, patriarchal western society was on the decline and would eventually disintegrate in favour of freer, and more satisfying and creative relationships between the sexes.

As Bizet’s own marriage wasn’t exactly one of the best I feel that this must have fed into his creative impulse to give us some of the most passionate, the most exciting and the most lyrically dramatic music ever to have flowed from a composer and certainly an inspiration on a level with those other two greats, (Verdi and Wagner, which we are celebrating this year). I’m so glad that I was present at the Giglio on yesterday’s almost unforgettable evening!

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