|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?