Opéra-comique in 4 acts
By Georges Bizet
Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, after Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1845)
First performed: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 3 March 1875
The subject of the play was taken from Mérimée’s novella of the same title. The novelist’s style, exact and cold as a photograph, and the cynicism of his thought have always made me see the success of his literary works as an alarming symptom of demoralization, and, except for Colomba, which a composer could turn into an excellent opera, I believe that there is no profit in associating oneself with his fantastic conceptions, in which natural feeling has no part, where there is no generous impulse, utterly devoid of any lyrical inspiration. M. Bizet has had the cruel experience of it. His opera contains beautiful fragments, but the strangeness of the subject has thrown him into oddity and incoherence. It is enough to give here a very sober analysis of this piece to justify what has just been said. The first act takes place in Seville, in front of a tobacco factory, near which is a guard house. A young girl, Micaëla, introduces herself and asks to speak to brigadier Don José, her childhood companion and her fiancé. The cigar-makers leave the factory, the cigarette on their lips, and brazenly mix with the troops of the soldiers. Carmen soon appears; she is a fille de joie. The soldiers surround her, and try to solicit her favors.
Carmen ! sur tes pas nous nous pressons tous !
Carmen ! sois gentille ; au moins réponds-nous,
Et dis-nous quel jour tu nous aimeras !
Quand je vous aimerai ? Ma foi, je ne sais pas.
Peut-être jamais ! peut-être demain !…
Mais pas aujourd’hui, c’est certain.
Such is the tone of the play. Carmen sings a habanera, a Spanish song: l’Amour est enfant de Bohême, etc. She looks at Don Jose, goes straight to him and throws at him a bouquet that she has detached from her bodice. From this moment, he is taken by a foolish passion for this vile creature, and during four acts he became successively, and almost without remorse, a perjurer, a deserter, a bandit, a thief, a smuggler, an assassin. Meanwhile, Micaëla hands him a letter from her mother, and naively, too naively, even for the dramatic conveniences, gives him a kiss that José was willing to give him, as if a mother could charge a young girl to give the first kiss to her fiancé. But it is a question of conveniences in contemporary theater! It must be acknowledged, to be just, that Don José feels his passion weaken in the presence of the honest and pure villager. But it only lasts long enough to sing a duet. An appalling tumult occurs; Carmencita has fought with her companions and wounded one of them. Officer Zuniga has her arrested, and her hands are tied, while she sings a seguidilla, and makes an appointment with her lover at Lillas Pastia’s inn. Alone with Don Jose, the latter loosens the ropes that clasp his hands, and when the soldiers take her away, she jostles them and escapes laughing. Such is the first act.
The second is at Lillas Pastia’s. I do not remember seeing at the Opéra-Comique any scene of such bad taste as this one. Officers are at table with Carmen, Frasquita, Mercédès and other gypsies. They climb on the tables, they smoke and dance naturally. Officer Zuniga, the same one who had arrested Carmen, is on good terms with his prisoner. The bullfighter Escamillo, arrives, who in turn seizes the gypsy’s heart: and three! in two acts, it’s a lot. The dancaïre then proposes pulling off a coup, and the soldiers gone, that amiable society offers him the assistance of his talents in a turbulent quintet. Don José comes to keep the appointment Carmen gave him in the first act. The bugle sounds the retreat, the siren of the crossroads kept him back, and, as the brigadier wishes to leave, she gets angry in these words:
Ah ! j’étais vraiment trop bête !
Je me mettais en quatre et je faisais des frais ;
Je chantais ! je dansais !
Je crois, Dieu me pardonne,
Qu’un peu plus je l’aimais !
Ta ra ta ta… c’est le clairon qui sonne !
Ta ra ta ta… Il part… il est parti !
Va-t’en donc, canari !
Tiens ! prends ton shako, ton sabre, ta giberne,
Et va-t’en, mon garçon, retourne à la caserne !
And I once complained of the negligence with which Scribe rhymed the libretti of Auber’s operas!
Don José, seduced by so much eloquence, swears to Carmen an eternal love, consents to desert, and sets off with the gypsies.
In the third act, the smugglers celebrate by singing the glory of their state, and utter maxims on the inconstancy of fortune; Carmen and her companions read cards. Micaëla makes a last effort to wrest Don José from his life of adventures. She tells him that her mother wants to see him, forgive him before he dies. The scenes in which Micaëla appears are touching and interesting; although they seem to be modeled on analogous scenes of Robert le Diable, they are greeted with a sigh of satisfaction by the spectator. But Don José is jealous of the bullfighter. He realizes that Carmen prefers him. He leaves, however, with Micaëla, but with rage in his heart and vowing to avenge Escamillo, whom he has tried to kill already, and Carmen, whom he will kill in the last act. Indeed, and to complete the analysis of this singular opera-comic poem, in the last act, Escamillo, having with him a radiant Carmen, prepares to fight in the bullring, and enters the circus. Don José appears; he wants to take Carmen away. She resists prayers, threats. She declares that she loves the bullfighter, and when, hearing the crowd acclaim him, she rushes towards the door of the circus, Don Jose strikes her with a mortal blow, and the curtain falls after he addresses these words to the crowd coming out of the circus: Vous pouvez m’arrêter…c’est moi qui l’ai tuée! Ah, Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!
It seems that one does not even take the trouble to make verses in this kind of libretto for the use of Impressionist authors. The search for the picturesque and local color has preoccupied M. Bizet too much in this work. In the second place, he wished to give pledges to the doctrinaires who call themselves the apostles of the music of the future, by breaking with what hitherto had been regarded as the traditions of taste, the satisfaction of the ear, harmony, in the concrete and special sense of the word. Finally, when he resigned himself to staying himself, that is to say, a very gifted musician, having studied well, possessing the art of writing, having the qualities proper to the French composer, clarity, melody, taste, wit, sensibility, he knew how to draw from this booklet, as bad at base as in its form, musical ideas of real value and which can survive the piece. I hope that a posthumous honor will be reserved for him, and that his great work will be protected against the bad impression left by the poem. It will be necessary to redo the libretto, to remove the vulgarities from it, to deprive it of this character of realism which does not suit a lyrical work, to make Carmen a capricious gypsy and not a fille de joie, Don José bewitched by love, but not a vile and odious being. The two roles of the Toreador and Micaëla are excellent; so the musician has treated them well. He has found for the first the energetic, frank, sonorous, I will say almost boastful, note, and for the second emotional tenderness and the accent of the heart. Leaving the score’s too long pages in the shadows of the “music without future”, I will call the reader’s attention to the following passages:
In the first act, the chorus in E major: Il y sera quand la garde montante remplacera la garde descendante. Let us pity the musicians who have to put such words to music! The Spanish song, habanera: L’Amour est un oiseau rebelle; Micaëla and Don José’s duet: Parle-moi de ma mère; in the second act, the gypsy song: les Tringles des sistres tintaient; the little chorus in C: Vivat le torero! the bullfighter’s couplets; the allegretto of Carmen and Don José’s duet: Si tu m’aimais, là-bas tu me suivrais; Carmen’s allegretto: Bel officier; in the third act, the chorus: Sans souci du soldat; the card trio; Micaëla’s aria: Je vais voir de près cette femme; the phrase: Je te tiens, fille damnée! in the finale; finally, in the fourth act, the allegro of the final duet: Mais, moi, Carmen, je t’aime encore.
Ernest Reyer – review of Carmen
40 ans de musique, Calmann-Lévy, Paris, 1909
(Opéra-Comique, 14 March 1875.)
The Carmen of the Opéra-Comique is a very sweet, very expurgated edition of the novella that everyone has read, except girls. Messrs. Meilhac and Halevy, transporting, onto a scene devoted for a long time to moral plots, of which marriage is the obligatory denouement, the type so admirably depicted or invented by Prosper Mérimée, slipped with all the lightness of their minds into many scabrous situations . They could not disguise their heroine to such an extent that nobody recognized her, and if they did not stop at the rather brutal death of Carmen, it was necessary to punish vice if they could not reward virtue. In short, as we are shown at the théâtre Favart, the gitanilla has not entirely lost that pungent relief which she has in the novel, and which sufficiently explains to the intelligent reader the passion of Don José. In the play, she plays with a knife or with castanets, smuggles and the rest absolutely as in the novel; but I repeat, because it is very useful to repeat it, all this is well tempered, well-gifted, much more so, for example, than if the authors had had for their collaborator their ordinary musician [Offenbach] and destined their operetta for the théâtre des Bouffes or Variétés. Well! in spite of this, there are still people who do not believe in the morality of Carmen, and the reputation the théâtre Favart has had until now of an asylum for the most puritanical families, is somewhat chipped. Yet if one were to look for it, it would not be difficult to discover, in the repertory of the Opéra-Comique, plays that have not been made specifically for the young ladies of Saint-Cyr. But people who have an answer to everything will tell me that these pieces only made a short appearance on the poster and that they are almost forgotten today, while we will always play and without danger for the most innocent and the most timid ladies: the Dame Blanche, le Postillon de Longjumeau, Fra Diavolo and the Domino noir, especially the Domino noir.
It follows from this that, while I find myself at ease in analyzing Carmen‘s libretto, I should like to to talk as much about Mérimée’s novella. Those who have not read it will read it after watching the play, without doubt, and those who already know it will not be sorry to know how far MM. Meilhac and Halévy have been able to go, walking on a tightrope.
At the beginning of the first act, when the bell of the tobacco factory rings, Carmen appears, surrounded by her companions, and approaches Brigadier José, who is mending his pin: “She had a very short red petticoat which showed white silk stockings with more than one hole and cute red morocco shoes tied with ribbons the color of fire. She spread her mantilla in order to show her shoulders and a large bouquet of cassia flowers that came out of her shirt. She still had a cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, and she was advancing, swinging herself on the hips like a filly of the studs of Cordova. In my country, adds Don Jose, a woman in this costume would have forced the world to cross himself. In Seville (for we are in Seville), each one addressed to her some fancy compliment to her face; she answered each one of them, making her eyes behind the scenes, her fist on her hip, as brazen as the true gypsy woman she was.”
After a few embarrassing remarks made to the brigadier, who was still occupied in mending his pin, Carmen throws in his face the fleur de cassie (it is Mérimée who said it) that she had in her mouth and ran into the factory, laughing loudly. Fleur de cassie should only mean fleur de rose (cassie is a very small yellow flower, with a sweet fragrance.) In the Midi I heard the tree that produces it called cassier. Littré says that cassie is in botanical terms a seed used in perfumery and does not give the tree its name. But he calls the tree that carries the casse the cassier. Napoléon Landais calls the tree like the flower: a cassie, and the Académie says nothing. This time the Midi might well be right against the north, whence the light usually comes to us); but baste! the important thing is to know that the flower, thrown with a sure hand, was thrown at him and that by reaching the brigadier between the two eyes, it hurt his heart.
Suddenly a great hubbub is heard in the manufactory, the gossips go out, shouting, and the guard opposite takes up arms to ward off any event. It is Carmen who, after an argument with one of her companions, worked on her face with the point of her knife. She is arrested and brigadier José is charged by his superiors to tie her hands and carry her to prison. On the way, the bonds break and Carmen runs away.
We find her at the next act in an inn (posada is perhaps more in Spanish color), whose master favors smuggling and who is probably watched by a squad of lancers. These are the soldiers of the first act, except that poor José, condemned to a month’s dungeon for having let the prisoner escape, has lost his brigadier’s stripes.
His love for Carmen awakens and with love jealousy. Don José provokes his lieutenant in single combat and wounds him with a blow of point, which is for him a death sentence. He had helped Carmen to escape, Carmen protects him in her turn, and gives him a rendezvous in the mountain, where we found him at the next act in the midst of a troop of smugglers.
I must not neglect to tell you that brigadier Don José, I was about to say the corporal, has a countrywoman who often speaks to him of his old mother and plays the rôle of his guardian angel. Alas! the poor child, courageous enough to come and join her fiancé in the wild gorge that serves him as an asylum, and where he finds himself in rather bad company, cannot bring him back to morality. Carmen disturbs their tête-à-tête. And in the mountain as in the inn, a new scene of jealousy and a duel with a knife.
The last cavalier Carmen admires is a picador in the novel and a bullfighter in the play. She left Don José’s tent to come to witness the prowess of the handsome Lucas. It is on the square where the circus is that José and Carmen meet and that after an explanation that leaves no doubt about the the gitanella’s infidelity, the latter falls struck by Don José’s knife.
The dénouement, as Mérimée narrates it, is much more poetic.
“We were in a solitary gorge …
“You love Lucas then?” I asked her.
“Yes, I loved him like you, for a moment, perhaps less than you.
“Now I do not like anything anymore and I hate myself for having loved you.
I threw myself at her feet, took her hands, and watered them with my tears.
“For the last time,” I cried, “will you stay with me?”
” – No ! no ! no ! she said, stamping her foot. And she drew from her finger a ring which I had given her and threw it into the bushes. I struck her twice: she fell at the second blow without screaming. I still see her big black eye staring at me, then it became cloudy and closed. I remained an hour sat in front of this corpse. Then I remembered that Carmen had often told me that she would like to be buried in a wood. I dug a pit with my knife and laid it there. I looked for her ring a long time and found it at the end. I put her in the pit beside her with a small cross. Maybe I was wrong. Then I climbed on my horse, galloped up to Cordova, and at the first guard-house I made myself known.
It has perhaps been thought that the spectators of the Opéra-Comique would not be sorry, after having seen vice punished, to see the sword of justice immediately fall upon the murderer’s head; and it is undoubtedly because of this that the dénouement takes place in the vicinity of the circus where, at the first sign, the curtain rises to allow an honorable company of alcades and corregidors to pass.
M. Bizet, after Djamileh, began to reflect on the difficulty of making the public appreciate the delicacy of a fine, distinguished work with a certain poetic flavor. And as a result of his reflections he wrote the score of Carmen. This very short preamble exempts us from making the slightest comparison between Carmen and Djamileh.
In Carmen, the composer could hardly avoid looking for the Spanish color. His memories helped him. This in no way implies the reproach of reminiscence or plagiarism that it would be absolutely inappropriate to apply to a composer as talented and imaginative as M. Bizet. I only want to say that the castanets of Carmen must necessarily make one think of other castanets, because there are not many new effects and new resources to expect from such an instrument.
The song of the first act, with its original chromatic phrase, comes straight from South America; it is sung much in Havana; we will sing it very much in Paris:
Si tu ne m’aimes pas, je t’aime;
Si je t’aime, prends garde à toi.
It is charming in truth, especially with the help that the ingenious orchestral accompaniment lends to the melody. M. Bizet is a master in the art of instrumentation, and only he has the secret of fine harmonies and fine couplings of timbres. I have said it of him about Djamileh, about the Arlesienne which is a jewel; I can repeat it of him about Carmen. But why, after making Carmen sing like a Spaniard, did he not think that the opportunity was natural enough to make her sing also an air of that country of Bohemia which is hers? The contrast would have been interesting, and M. Bizet had no need to borrow the the Parkas brothers’ zymbala, to give us, in all its picturesque perfume, a sample of those strange melodies peculiar to the daughters of Egypt, and which, Liszt said, “can make drunk even brains that their seductive poses would not disturb”.
Should we now make a detailed analysis of Carmen‘s score? The reader, I know, does not have an excessive taste for these kinds of analyzes, which require the use of technical terms. I prefer to quote the pieces which the public has particularly welcomed, and which must for this reason be the most successful.
The havanera of the first act was bis-sed: the chorus of the cigar-makers is very pretty and there are excellent passages in the duet between Carmen and Don José! Listen attentively to this delicious dialogue of clarinet and bassoon that the orchestra performs during the entr’acte, and agree with me that the aria of Escamillo (it is the picador to whom the authors did not wish to retain the name a little too pastoral of Lucas), agree with me that it is impossible to sing this aria better than M. Bouhy did. Let us add to the balance sheet of the second act a very remarkable scenic duet and an admirably written little quintet. In the third act I quote the smugglers’ night march and the march of Micaëla (Don José’s fiancée); and finally, in the next act (the last one), the picadors’ march already heard in the introduction, the ariette sung by Escamillo and the great final scene, in which the striking fanfares of the circus form a striking and dramatic contrast with the death of Carmen.
But Carmen is not dead, and at the Opera-Comique we saw many others who came back from as far.
(Journal des Débats)
Revue des Deux Mondes, 3e, tome 95, 1889 (pp. 803-836).
Dramatic and picturesque, this is in two words the definition and praise of Carmen, Bizet’s last masterpiece, the most varied, the most popular, the one by which to finish. This time again, Bizet was well served by his collaborators. The time was no longer that of the Pearl Fishers or the Jolie Fille de Perth. Messrs. Meilhac and Halévy made of Mérimée’s famous novella a very literary and very scenic adaptation. They retained from the original narrative all the color and all the flavor compatible with propriety; many sacrifices were necessary. The librettists were discrete, but the public were still frightened in their prudery. Now that they are reassured, one might perhaps take advantage of it to accentuate certain details of staging or costume, which I would like more in keeping with the general spirit of the work. Carmen, says Merimée’s José, “had a very short red petticoat that showed white silk stockings with more than one hole, and cute red morocco shoes tied with ribbons of fire. She spread her mantilla to show off her shoulders and a large bouquet of cassia flowers that came out of her shirt.” And elsewhere: “Would you believe it, sir? These silken stockings, which she made me see in full by running away, I always had before my eyes.” Why not show them at the Opéra-Comique, these stockings, instead of adorning Carmen, the gypsy, the cigar-maker, like an Andalusian in a costume ball? In the second act, at Lillas Pastia’s, I would like a more ambiguous locale and less academic dances than this honest little ballet. Lillas Pastia’s should smell of fish and frying. Here and there, MM. Meilhac and Halévy, no doubt, would have liked more; but they did not dare and they could not dare. How can we get Merimee as he is? How, for example, to present to the public Garcia, Carmen’s one-eyed, hideous husband, used to procedures like this: in a matter with the soldiers, the Remendado, fleeing with his comrades, receives a bullet in the kidneys; José wants to stop him and load the wounded man on his shoulders: “Fool,” cried Garcia, “what do we have to do with carrion? Finish it and do not lose the cotton stockings.” “Throw it away,” Carmen shouted. Fatigue compelled me to place him for a moment in the shelter of a rock. Garcia stepped forward and discharged his blunderbuss in his head. ”
I pass over the worst, as the librettists have passed. In the theater it was impossible to strike too brutally the audience’s feelings and their need for sympathy. The character of Micaëla is only a homage or a concession to this need. It was necessary to reckon with other conventions of theatrical aesthetics. The last scene, for example, is much more atrocious in the novella than in the opera. The assassination of the Gitana by José in a deserted ravine, whilst a neighboring hermitage celebrates a mass ordered by the brigand himself, this solitary death, given and received coldly, all this would have revolted the spectators, at any rate, would have struck them less than the murder in full sunlight, in full celebration, than this luminous end, radiant as an apotheosis. More than once, it has been necessary to attenuate and soften, and to spread the too intense color. But the music still retains enough luster. It also retains the essential qualities of Mérimée’s prose: naturalness, sobriety and conciseness. Often, it has more grace, tenderness, and heart; it is not difficult, and it is happy.
Carmen, like the Arlesienne, deserves a place of honor in the musical history of our generation, and this place she finally conquered. Today it has the privileged age when the creations of art are understood and admired wholly and by all the world. Time has ended by consecrating it and has not begun to wilt it. Is it not at once easier and more gentle for criticism to take a work at this moment of its destiny, to contemplate it in its still fresh flower, before the scruples and doubts come to us and we feel grow old, as we ourselves age, what we shall have loved most?
Carmen‘s prelude, like the prelude to the Arlesienne, is made up of some characteristic themes; it is the sketch where the colors of the painting are tried. Without preparation, in a clear tone, on a square, almost hard rhythm, a fanfare, somewhat vulgar, deliberate, but joyous, dizzying, bursts forth; it is the fanfare of the bullring, it is, so to speak, the backdrop from which the characters will be detached. Here is already the motif of Escamillo, a refrain of matamoras and of bellast, well turned like the brilliant torero, but like him without nobility, almost without thought. After the musical decoration, the action itself and the heroine. A sudden silence stops short the sounding of the brass; to a bitter tremolo of violins clings with a sort of hate a short phrase, with strange intonations, which resembles a caress, but a caress savage and fatal. This sentence is the motto of Carmen: everywhere it will announce the coming of the Gitana, which she will follow until death. Here in a few measures is all the drama announced and summarised; let us now follow the development of this short preface.
The preliminaries or interludes are always treated by Bizet with minute care; he possessed the art of preparations and transitions; he placed charming halts in his works, where his talent and attention relaxed. This is how Carmen begins discreetly, sotto voce. We enter slowly into the work, little by little, by familiar and living details. On a square in Seville, in front of the tobacco factory, at the door of a guard-house, a few dragoons are seated; they smoke, they talk, they watch passing passers-by, and in their conversation, in their brief sentences carelessly thrown, one feels the nonchalance and banality of their leisure. But a young girl arrives; the orchestra comes alive, and the movements and modulations express with ease and naturalness the uncertainties of Micaela, her regret at not finding José whom she sought, her half-timid, half-coquettish graces among the eager soldiers.
More and more the decoration is drawn and colored. After the chorus of soldiers, here is the choir of the kids, a marvel of melody, rhythm and instrumentation; delicious genre painting, and like all the paintings of Bizet, clean and finished. Nothing could be more frank than this song, nothing more natural to children proud to escort soldiers. And under this easy refrain, what an ingenious orchestra! Scales that spin gaily, trills that resemble bursts of laughter, everywhere gaiety, light and life.
The cigar-makers now enter, under the eyes of the young men who await them, and salute them with their languorous declarations. On the accompaniment which undulates, which envelops the melody in its floating contours, the chorus unfolds, ascends, in spirals similar to those of the smoke; it rises and dissipates with the last puff of cigarettes. And only then, the one for whom all these men came, the most womanly of all these women, a flower between her red lips, swinging on her hips “like a filly of the stud of Cordova,” Carmen appears, not as an opera princess, announced by a pompous ritornello, but only saluted by a cry of the crowd, and by two strident bursts, by a double whistle of the few strange notes which belong to her, which are herself and she alone.
The “passions of love,” as they used to be called, have a peculiar character in Bizet’s opera. Carmen does not love a moment, I mean true love; she loves only by caprice, interest, or debauchery. Provocative, libertine, voluptuous, the habanera of the first act is all that; it is not tender. The few notes: love, love, trailed above the resumption of the chorus, have only a sensual charm, and in the chorus itself, accompanying the chorale in its monotonous psalmody, one feels already something hard and bad, a threat of perfidy and treachery.
After the provocation by the chant comes the provocation by the gesture, and this right hook of the cassia flower thrown in the dragoon’s face. While Carmen looks him in the face, the characteristic phrase resounds, solemn, decisive, marking that the drama will be knotted; and when the blow struck, while the girls run away laughing, the orchestra breaks out. There is in this brilliance more than a mere ritornello demanded by a movement of figures; it is the thunderous explosion of passion in a soul suddenly and forever overthrown.
After taunting the officers with her insolent choruses, Carmen, with her hands tied, remains alone with José. To be freed, what does she sing? The first song came. Bizet, in such a case, does not go in quest (and he is right) for rare melodies and extraordinary accompaniments. Carmen hums with carelessness and says her song to the end. Interrogated by José, she answers with a perfect naturalness, and little by little she seeks to regain her seguidilla, she brings it back with skill, she makes a foretaste of it, and desires return; she shows José in the distance, and ready to return at his word, the coquettish melody which sometimes approaches and sometimes hides. The orchestra never ceases to jump on a mocking rhythm, and when José panting finally promised, then with a wild gaiety, already forgetful of promises of love, the song leaves, jumps on the suddenly hard and hoarse accompaniment, and ends with a cry of wicked triumph. The impression that emerged from the habanera emerges stronger from the seguidilla, the action has walked, and the main figure is accentuated.
Where will José finally enjoy the love for which he has already paid the only hope of a sin and a punishment? Is it in the moonlight, in the poetic setting where the tenors are accustomed to love and to be loved? On a bench of moss or on a bed of rest, on a spring night, when the birds sing? No, it will be in a hovel, and for a few short hours, stolen from the toil of service, at this hour when the soldier sometimes leaves his barracks to run to the bad places in the neighborhood. It is here that we would like as much color in the staging as in the music. Beyond the Pyrenees, Carmen was often accused of being a counterfeit, almost a caricature of the country. Carmen, it is said, is not true Spain. – Okay; but it is much more beautiful, as William Tell is more beautiful than Switzerland; Carmen (and all the masterpieces are there) is not true by material truth, but by ideal truth, the only one of which art has to be anxious. The musical picture by which the second act opens is not copied from nature; perhaps. But it is more natural than nature. What does it matter that in these energetic refrains, in this whirling whirlwind, there is not what one sees of Spain, if there is what one dreams of it?
The main piece of the second act is Carmen and José’s duet. Let us pass over the other pages, in spite of their merit: over the prelude, made (we know with what dexterity) from the song of the dragons of Alcala; over the sparkling quintet, a model of symphonic verve; whose idea goes, comes, makes a thousand turns like a fast water where one would sow light obstacles in order that it should sing louder and run faster. Let us also leave the verses of Escamillo, bold and gay at the beginning, vulgar at the turn of the refrain, but of a vulgarity which we have already tried to justify by the character’s allure and poses of the character. With the duo, we enter the most beautiful domain of music, that of souls. It is no longer a matter of local color, habaneras, and seguedilles; as Corneille’s hero says, it is much more.
In this duet, the two characters are clearly opposed: José, the simple, weak being, grasped body and soul by a diabolical love for which he has already failed in discipline, for which one feels that he will lose honor; Carmen hardly more tender than the first act, without a moment of relaxation or abandonment. Her dance alone is lascivious, her song is hard and dry, to such a point that she adapts himself to the imperturbable rhythm of the bugles sounding the retreat.
José, however, brought her a soul full of love. With what humility he responds to Carmen’s first outburst: C’est mal à toi, Carmen, de te moquer de moi ! Carmen refusing to hear him, he seizes her wrist, while the demonic phrase roars in the orchestra. But far from threatening, striking perhaps, he kneels down. All her anger falls under a glance, and from his lips, from the poor lips of this child of the people, from an adolescent dazzled by this girl, rises an admirable plea of love.
Who does not remember Faust’s prayer to Marguerite: Laisse-moi contempler ton visage ! It developed free and serene, and in the clear night it rose to the stars. Here we are in a mess; on the ground still lie the shards of a plate that Carmen broke to make castanets; scarcely had the officers and the bullfighter left; the officers, for whom Carmen just now assumed her most immodest poses; the bullfighter, to whom she has thrown a wink full of promises; the cigarette smoke still floats to the ceiling, and in this thick atmosphere it seems at first that José’s phrase will stifle. But he draws from his coat the faded flower, which has so long rested on the coarse canvas of his soldier’s shirt, and at once the music clears, the air purifies, and the infamous chamber is filled with love. What poetry, what piety the poor boy puts in this good fortune of barrier! What a song at once respectful and plaintive, but as disturbed as Faust’s phrase! José tells Carmen all the dreams of his captivity; each sentence expresses a movement of his heart, a desire for his senses: regrets, remorse, blasphemies thrown at this fatal love, scruples and presentiments of misfortune and shame. The orchestra rises slowly, with all its mass, the flood rises, always rises, and with these words: Car tu aurais eu qu’à paraître, it seems that it falls and breaks. In this famous page, everything is beautiful, everything is true, until the final cadence, until a string of chords, somewhat bizarre, somewhat slender, which have been criticized wrongly and which express so well José’s defeat and his complete surrender to the passion that vanquished him.
Non, says the indomitable girl coldly; non, tu ne m’aimes pas; to such burning confessions of love she responds only by the negation of this love. Tu ne m’aimes pas, car… si tu m’aimais, là-bas… là-bas; the rhythm changes, accelerates. From that là-bas, là-bas, of which the gypsy sings, vague and fugitive country of her race, come mysterious calls of nature and freedom. It is not banal, this duet, which does not end with the usual transports and the unison or the third of the happy love. José begged a moment ago, now he is the one Carmen begs. The insidious phrase envelops José; it encloses him, it embraces him with ever narrower circles, and when it has ended by stifling him, when, close to yielding, he remains silent, then the obstinate phrase reappears for the last time in the orchestra, but lowly, ironical and light, with a mocking tinkling, laughing at the finished work, shame accepted and now certain.
Là-bas, là-bas, dans la montagne ! the third act leads us there. The life Jose has chosen, a wandering and proscribed life, the musician makes known to us. Through the stony paths, to the sounds of a deaf and almost timid ritornello, they walk, the gypsies, singing a melancholy chorus, to which a certain descent of chromatic chords gives a tinge of anxiety and sad reverie. This is one of those purely musical halts which the composer knows how to keep up with his work; here are others: Micaëla’s aria, the chorus: Quant aux douaniers, c’est notre affaire, the trio of cards where, as opposed to the gaiety of the two little gypsies, Carmen’s gloomy resignation before the threats of fate takes on a fierce grandeur. What a beautiful phrase Carmen sings here in a dark voice! How it is well followed, well balanced, supported by an immutable accompaniment like that death that the cards persist in predicting!
Soon, after recovering its breath, the musical drama recommences. Before breaking it, Bizet summed it up. He united for the last time all the characters; he shows them to us at the culminating point of their character, at the paroxysm of their respective passions, and, so to speak, at the height of themselves: Escamillo more fatal, José weaker and more violent, Micaëla sweeter, Carmen more savage than ever. Carmen separated the two fighters, she stopped the arm of the one she loved an hour yesterday, that arm raised on the one she will love tomorrow. Escamillo thanks her and goes away, not without having taken an insolent leave of his rival. The refrain of the bullfighter returns, but if not transformed, at least modified by variants of movement, harmony and instrumentation. Instead of bursting with the somewhat vulgar frankness of the past, the phrase rumbles to the orchestra, more deaf, very tied, full of rancor and hatred.
Micaëla does not sing like she used to; if she repeats to Jose the touching melody of the first act, she finishes it by a declining appeal which the timid child had not yet found.
As for Carmen, she hardly speaks; but in what tone does she say to José: Va-t’en, va-t’en, tu feras bien, notre métier ne te vaut rien ! I can still hear it, this short sentence, falling note by note, disdainful, insolent, with a half smile, from the lips of Mme. Galli-Marié, who turned around Micaëla, while looking at the frail messenger with a long glance of pity.
Then José straightens up, and seizing the cynical creature full body, he throws her down, and spits his anger and his curse in her face. However short the apostrophe is, it ends the act with a power that cannot be surpassed by the most developed ensembles. Such a cry is enough to make one fear this fierce love and jealousy. And from the backstage, from the path around the mountain, comes the refrain of the bullfighter. He goes away, he goes out, and just hearing it, just seeing a flash of pleasure pass over Carmen’s face, one feels onself bend before the mysterious and terrible law of female caprice. José’s love, that love that begs and weeps, is dead now. Place to the new love, to the one who goes there, proud and singing!
“When a passionate, violent, even brutal temperament; when a Verdi gives art a living and strong work, kneaded with gold, mud, gall, and blood, let us not say to him coldly: But, dear sir, it lacks taste, is not distinguished. Distinguished! Are Michelangelo, Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, Beethoven, Cervantes, and Rabelais distinguished? So we must have genius accommodated to the rice powder and sweet almond paste? Let us rather ask our Zouaves to mount the assault in white ties and silk pants.” — Bizet, when he spoke, or rather when he wrote thus, seemed to reply in advance to the unjust reproach of vulgarity which was made at several passages of Carmen, notably at the beginning of the fourth act: the defile of the cuadrilla entering the circus. The musical picture is a little raw, but on purpose. Here is the brilliant and boisterous Seville, and the Spanish crowd rushing to the arena. Such is the universal drunkenness of a day like this, an intoxication of warmth, sun, and blue sky. Think of the quality of this pleasure: a bullring, and you will find it exactly matches the quality of this music. The brass band is beautiful by the caseband alone, by the aplomb of its rhythm, inflexible and continuous. Each group crosses the square, greeted by the people in joy; heavy accompaniments mark the passage of the iron-clad picadores, and when the banderilleros come, lines escape in sparkling flares like the gold embroidery, light as the silk capes. Escamillo appears at last, dressed in purple, the hero of the bloody festival, and the bullfighter’s refrain escapes from every breast, sonorous to make the walls of the amphitheater crumble. But Escamilio, more anxious than usual, barely smiles; his gallant phrase: Si tu m’aimes, Carmen, is almost collected; he feels that a curtain only separates him from an always possible death.
Despite the insistence of her companions, in spite of a small orchestra motif that comes back several times, as a warning and a threat, Carmen remains. She saw José watching her; she walks straight to him and challenges him. Then one of the most striking scenes of contemporary lyric theater, one of the most beautiful and truest at the same time. Such a dénouement to crown such a work was more than promise; it was the present and glorious testimony of a great musician, and a great theatrical man was among us.
This duet, a terrible crescendo of feeling and sound, starts from a nothing, from a few coldly exchanged words. Not a muscle of Carmen’s face moves; she seems to speak to another than José and another than herself. But José little by little comes alive. Carmen, il est temps encore, he says, insisting on every note of the phrase which quivers softly, but already quivers. Carmen grows impatient and the same phrase returns, more irritated this time, with a warmer peroration. After Carmen’s brutal declaration: Non, je ne t’aime plus, immediately after, the note retaliating at the note, as in a duel, a transport of indignation seizes the whole orchestra; a clamor of reproach rises towards the impudent girl, and in an admirable effusion, Jose throws everything at her feet: his love, the debris of his honor, and the despair long buried in his soul. Carmen does not even listen; only the rustling of her fan, crumpled in her nervous fingers, accompanies the heart-rending prayer. But in the midst of this duet, in the solitude of the deserted square, the trumpets of the circus intervene brutally. The invisible crowd underlines with its shouts the stages of the battle. Then the vision of the arena, evoked at once, captures our imagination, and we follow at once the two scenes, the two duels, united by a bond of death that is always tightening. Henceforth, it is between the two dramas a rivalry of haste and emotion; on one side and the other, the blood will flow almost at the same time. Each flourish of the band redoubles Carmen’s impatience, and the rage in José’s heart. Carmen begins to flee; José pursues her and blocks her at the door she wanted to cross. Terrible, he begs her to return to him, and two or three times the orchestra throws to the wretch the diabolical motive that was the savage motto of his life. He throws it with a terrifying solemnity, in order to show that it is finally a matter of yielding or of dying, and the phrase which formerly returned sometimes laughing and light, proud of its grace and liberty, now it is a prisoner, struggling with roars. Inside the circus, a thunder of cries and bravos; the song of the bullfighter breaks out, but in the orchestra a sinister counter-song answers him and gives it a funereal color. José lifts the knife, strikes, and suddenly, broken by the frightful crisis, he falls to his knees, while on the corpse the few infernal notes return for the last time, as if death itself could not triumph over the indomitable creature.
Such is Bizet’s last page, and his most admirable. It was from this summit that he fell; it is here that we must stop abruptly, as death itself stopped him.
“When a man whom one admires dies,” said Gustave Flaubert, “one is always sad. We hoped to know him later and to be loved.” Bizet once inspired us with this admiration, this hope, and this sadness. At last, one could say to herself, listening to Carmen, the schoolboy we were then, a man of genius revealed himself; our youth will have its musician. Alas! three months later died the one whose masterpiece had touched the deepest fibers of our adolescent heart, whom, secretly to ourselves, we had just proclaimed a master. With what vows, what ardent sympathy we dreamed of following him! It would have been the honor of our time, instead of being only the most brilliant hope of it! We would have known and loved him, and we would have paid homage to his hearth instead of to his tomb.