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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Just Been To See... Carmen!

Celestine Galli-Marie as Carmen. Public domain.



This afternoon I went to the opera at the Melbourne Arts Centre. I subscribe, though last year I didn't go, as most of the season was the Ring Cycle and I loathe Wagner, fully agreeing with whoever said that Wagner's music has some beautiful moments and some dreadful half hours. What little wasn't Wagner I'd seen before.

Well, I've seen Carmen before, many times. In fact, it was my very first opera, as a child, given as a birthday treat. The music was beautiful, but the singers were amateurs - and amateurish, though the Carmen singer went on to play Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler On The Roof. (But that was okay, because the ghost of Fruma-Sarah was supposed to screech!) It almost put me off opera altogether, though when we were going on a school excursion to The Barber Of Seville, my music teacher assured me the singers were professionals and very good - which they were. Phew! My love of opera was rescued! 

And I do love it, enough to be sucked into going to every season, even when, so often, they perform the same damned operas over and over again. I will never willingly see Madama Butterfly again. I don't mind La Boheme, whose music still enchants me, though I was almost put off when it was set in the sixties and poor Mimi died lying in a bean bag... Il Trovatore - beautiful music, but they will go having sixty year old tenors playing a sixteen year old troubadour! And the story is so very silly, even the Marx Brothers version in A Night At The Opera is only a little bit sillier. 

But Carmen - I think I'm not quite tired of it yet. It's such a shame that Bizet had to see it as a flop and never survived long enough to to see it as a hit. The music is glorious and the story is nowhere near as silly as those of some other operas I've seen. There are no long lost brothers, no noblemen backstabbing each other and threatening the heroine(who is a lady in waiting to the queen and in love with the sixty year old tenor). There are no kings or gods or even middle class Parisians and courtesans. There's just a gypsy factory worker and her soldier boy. And, yes, a gang of smugglers, but what they're smuggling isn't important. In fact, if there's anything silly about this opera it's the smugglers' camp, which just about anyone seems able to drop into - and leave unscathed - whether it's the celebrity bullfighter or the hero's sweet little girl-next-door. I mean, come on, now! 

But this production was directed by Shakespearean actor-director John Bell, who updated the setting to more-or-less modern Havana, and focused on the relationships. And I noticed things I hadn't noticed before, and appreciated better things I had. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the storyline, it's basically femme fatale girl meets soldier boy, flirts with him, they fall in love and he ends up killing her when she quite understandably gets fed up with his jealousy and drops him for the celebrity bullfighter. Of course, he might see it differently. He has thrown away everything for a relationship which isn't even permanent. 

But here's the thing. Don Jose, the hero, isn't entirely the clean-cut upright boy he appears. Early in the opera he admits he only became a soldier in the first place while he was on the run after a fight in his village that ended badly for his victim. We don't know why he had the fight, but it's clue number one, which suggests he has a violent streak that just might come out later. Each of the two times the churchgoing sweet young thing Micaela brings him a message from his Mum, it's that the old lady has forgiven him. For what? The fight? But that seems to have blown over. She is still forgiving him in Act Three, when Micaela arrives at the smugglers' HQ to ask him to go home to see his dying mother. Something else, then? What else might he have done for which he needs forgiveness? And then he has to go with Carmen and the smugglers because he got into yet another fight, with his CO, in a fit of possessiveness. 

And Carmen. She seems to be a serial monogamist(monandrist?). In Act One she says she's just kicked out her last lover and is in the market for a new one. She falls in love with Jose because he's not interested in her at the time. Big mistake - fatal, in fact. She should have noticed Jose's possessiveness during that fight in Act Two! If she had accepted Escamillo the toreador in Act Two, in the pub scene, she might have been alive at the end, but opera is not like that. See Maskerade, Terry Pratchett's novel on the subject of opera. Escamillo knows perfectly well she will eventually dump him, but he's a celebrity, no doubt with plenty of groupies to cheer him up. 


Carmen makes a number of fatal errors, mostly in underestimating her lover's capacity for violence. I don't think either of them knows what love is. He thinks it's about owning your beloved. She thinks - well, similar stuff. When it's him doing the jealous act, she's all, "I have to be free!" When he makes gestures of departure she says things that will eventually get her killed, to get him to stay. She just can't shut up. 

Still, I have never liked Don Jose. He strikes me as the sort of boyfriend who would hang around in the corner at a party, getting more and more drunk and glaring at the girlfriend who's having a good time without him, unless he embarrasses her. Then, on the way back, he'd have a burst of drunken rage in the car. He's downright scary! 

Anyway, this was a fine production. The children doing the "little soldiers" in the first act were adorable. They came beck in the final act, some of them rap dancing during the parade of bullfighters. Last time I saw the opera there was a live horse on stage, whose rider brought it on during the curtain call and got it to take a bow. No horses this time, except an amusing pair of men doing the hobby horse thing. Well, it was done in modern dress(more or less) and trucks were more likely. 

The singers were amazing, all of them, and there was a lot of applause during the curtain call. 

So, that's me and the opera, and I think I'll go to bed and watch the Marx Brothers with Alan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, with "the party of the first part" and "...make that two hard boiled eggs!" 

Who else enjoys opera out there? Any favourites? And if you hate it, what in particular? 

10 comments:

Stephanie Faris said...

I haven't even been to the opera, but I do love a good play!

Julie said...

I've never seen an opera. I've been to Broadway many times to see musicals (which I adore), but somehow I've never seen an opera. I will try to remedy that. What opera do you recommend for someone who has never seen one?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Stephanie, most operas wouldn't make good plays, they are too silly, though some of the better ones are based on plays, such as Rigoletto, based on a play by - Victor Hugo, was it? And he hated it, until the big quartet in the last act, when he applauded, but said, "Well, if I could have four characters talking at once..."

Julie, if you can get to see Broadway musicals you're doing fine. Most of the newer ones are operas anyway, in the strict sense, we've come a long way from Oklahoma and Fiddler On The Roof. They have very little dialogue and some, like Cats, have no dialogue at all. Les Miz has a but if what used to be called recitative. See? Opera! On the other hand, Carmen has some spoken dialogue.

But if you'd like to try the older style of opera, I'd suggest you start with something cheerful. Mozart does it very well - The Magic Flute and The Marriage Of Figaro are both a hoot and have gorgeous music as well, as does Cosi Fan Tutte. Not Don Giovanni for a first, though later, yes. Perhaps operetta, Offenbach especially - Orpheus In The Underworld is hysterically funny and has at least one familiar tune you'll have heard, the Can Can, only it's the gods dancing it, not can can girls. Some of the Franz Lehar operettas. YouTube will certainly have lots of stuff for you.

Suzanne Furness said...

Like Julie I love musicals. I have never been to the opera, although my husband occasionally listens to some of the more familiar opera music. I guess I have always thought I wouldn't understand it. Interesting to read more about it here.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I love musicals too. They're terribly expensive these days, but when I was a child I used to go with my friends often - you could buy a child ticket to Fiddler On The Roof or Man Of La Mancha or 1776 for 50 cents! So I grew up knowing the tunes and the lyrics of just about any Broadway musical you could name. These days, most Broadway musicals ARE operas.

But a nice simple description of opera is given by in the novel Maskerade by Terry Pratchett's Nanny Ogg, who knows about it because her son used to steal lead from the roof of the Opera House and listen in while he was there. The "heavy" operas are ones in which people take ages to die, while singing about it(I can think of at least one opera like that). The light operas have characters singing about beer or champagne, depending on where the opera was written. So, her friend Granny Weatherwax says, it's all stout or stabbing.

Couldn't have put it better myself!

Sharon M Himsl said...

Wow, I learned a lot about operas here. My one trip to the opera was in Seattle with a high school class but I can't remember what we saw. I do love musicals and saw a live performance of Fiddler on the Roof that I'll never forget. I happened to be TV surfing one day and saw Cats on PBS. I was mesmerized by it. I now live about 3 hours from Seattle and have a new friend who loves the opera. Maybe I can learn a thing or two from her too. It's never too late to learn!

Sue Bursztynski said...

No, never too late! I started early, but most people don't. I took my little brother several times to opera and operetta before he was out of primary school, and he loved them! Fidelio, The Barber Of Seville, a couple of Offenbach operettas... So he went to the opera with his fiancée, now wife. He's unusual, though.

I saw Cats on stage, in Sydney - amazing opera! Funny and sad and exciting and you left singing the tunes. I saw Fiddler several times when I was in my teens, and another time many years later. Gorgeous show! The first Tevye I saw was an American actor who had settled in Australia during the McCarthy witch hunts. The best was Chaim Topol, who toured here and was still as wonderful as when he did it in his youth.

See what I said above and start with something cheerful. Ask your friend.

Julie said...

Fiddler on the Roof, one of my very favorites! Followed by The Sound of Music, Joseph and His Multi Colored Dream Coat, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers!

I saw 'Joseph' in NY on Broadway when Donny Osmond played Joseph and I still remember how incredible his voice was! I own the DVD now and watch it now and again.

I was blessed to see Topol live in Jacksonville, Florida, playing his role of Tevya. He was older and greyer than in the movie, but his voice was incredible! It was very long (over 3 hours if I remember correctly) but I loved every second!

I will try to find the operas you recommend.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Joseph is actually a rock oratorio written for a children's choir. It has really expanded since then! My school performed it in my first year of teaching and the voice of our Joseph, a child soprano, started breaking soon before the show! So he got to do one night and a girl played it the other two nights; she went on to play Maria in Sound Of Music the next year!

My most interesting experience of Joseph was in Israel, where I heard it in Hebrew. The song "Those Canaan Days" was sung with French accents - in Hebrew!

And yes, Topol was wonderful, even in later years, as Tevye. It's almost as though he reached the right age to play it. I saw it in Melbourne.

Tamara Narayan said...

I've never been to an opera, so I'm not sure if I would like it or not. I do like musicals.