Saturday, May 11, 2024

The Dark Side and Misguided Passion of Bizet’s Carmen


I have now been to various opera productions by the Vancouver Opera and have enjoyed them all, some more than less, but they have been excellent experiences, nonetheless and regardless. It turned out, not by design but by fortuitous circumstances or maybe even impulsivity, that this year and season, I ended up attending each and every one of them.

The one that was highest on my list was The Magic Flute, which I absolutely loved and actually saw for the second time, the previous one had been put on by the UBC ensemble various years ago. To Don Pasquale I went by accident and did not regret it all. Both, I went to by myself, reason forthcoming below.

And then, there was Carmen. This opera was never high up on my list, which is a bit ironic for someone who has studied 19th century French literature and who loves and relishes in unbridled passion and romance and the bright and dark side of desire. The music has wonderful bits of course, but overall, it did not manage to sweep me off my feet. And yet, as my wife had her eyes set on it and reproached me (among a host of many other things) to have missed a previous production some years ago, I felt compelled and obliged.



Like concerts, these types of events one is fond of and tends to look forward to. One ensures that nothing encroaches upon the date and expects and hopes that it will be a resounding success. And as I am wont to do, I meticulously plan things in advance, leave little to chance and (try to) ensure that nothing goes wrong. Well, many things can still go wrong.

For starters, I have the tendency to arrive much too early to events. Usually, I attend the pre-talk but, on that day, I did not feel like it, and yet, I had allotted a good solid hour to get to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which is about a twenty-minute bus ride and a thirty-minute walk. The weather forecast included some rain after a few sunny days, but I assumed we should be fine.

The annual BMO marathon scheduled for the same day was in the back of my mind, but previous events of that caliber had not interfered in significant measure and led to only minor delays. We had a lot of extra time factored in just in case.

Yet when we stepped out, we noticed that this time it was different. There was an insane amount of traffic on our street and a noticeable lack of buses in the direction that we were planning to head. I suggested to grab umbrellas and walk, but it was immediately and forcefully vetoed. My wife chose to call a cab. I doubted that would be fruitful and merely pointed at it but was attacked on the spot. Like often, I shrugged and went along.

The cab ride was a disaster. It turned out that others were attempting to take the side roads as well and we were often caught in traffic that moved at a snail’s pace. Time was dangerously approaching showtime and bottled stress and frustrations culminated during this slow-motion ride through hell. The accusations flew from both sides, and although the cab driver did not speak Spanish (I presume), he could feel the tension between this quarreling couple.

And that was the exact reason I had gone to the opera by myself. The day I told her that I would go to Mozart on my own, there was an argument as well. I just did not want her to cast shadows on my enjoyment of that masterpiece; I was aware that it could and would happen with Bizet but was not as fazed by it. And this is not limited to the opera, watching Barbie with her was an ordeal as well, yes, Barbie for goodness’ sake!

All stress and worry for nought, we arrived there on time, but she gave me, as is wont to happen in such situations, the silent treatment. She would not even give me mono-syllabic responses. I could not wait for the music to start but felt sad and let down that I would not have anyone to talk to about and on the event. Lo and behold, two charming women sat by my side, and they were very pleasant and easy to talk to.

I do not know their names (I kind of wished I had asked them, but I wanted them to remain anonymous here; notwithstanding, I did tell or rather warned them that they would be mentioned in my post) and will refer to the first one as the German lady and the other one by my side as the first-time opera attendee.

We talked about how opera was such a unique and immersive performance that involved a high level of expertise in multitasking. Not only were the people on stage asked to sing, often challenging arias and had to do so quite often in different languages, but they were also supposed to act, move about, and in some cases even fight with each other and do minor stunts. In fact, they even had a knife fight in this opera.

The German lady told me how she was interested in learning Italian to be able to understand opera from the region and she also mentioned an Italian singer by the name of Giovanni Z. (for the life of me I cannot recall his full last name) who would turn and transpose German folk songs into Italian, which sounded interesting, daring, and challenging.

Meanwhile, our cherished first-time attendee was looking forward to this event and I was hoping, almost praying that it would turn out to be a thoroughly positive and enchanting experience for her (sadly, it was not) so here is to hoping that she will still continue to visit operatic events even after this letdown of Carmenic proportions.


Love for the Exotic, Uncommon, and Unattainable

In the opera, Don José is presented with two options. He could choose filial duty, his mother an invisible yet imposing presence via her letters brought by the charming messenger Micaëla, a village maiden who his mother suggests as a potential mate and spouse, and on the other side, the passion and desire for the attention-seeking and -grabbing Carmen who bursts on the stage and turns the head of all the soldiers present.

While the reasonable choice would have been the good and faithful girl sent by his mother, he chooses to go for the person that attracts him much more and on the spot. But duty and doing the right thing is one thing, following one’s desires and passion is another. He is smitten with the fiery Carmen, her appeal apart from her unparalleled beauty and uninhibited demeanor also comes from being a foreigner, having Spanish and Gypsy blood in her.

When she gives him the eye and the rose and basically encourages him to pursue here, there is no way back for this young soldier. He is even willing to go to prison for her (twice actually but the second time is for a completely different and much more sinister reason) and he consciously commits a misdeed for her by letting her escape from the shackles of the law.

This sacrifice of his does not go unnoticed by her so when he is released months later, she awaits him. She professes her love to him, which should be taken with a grain of salt as she has a long list and history of pervious lovers, but he takes it in completely, and again, against all odds and reason.

Yet when she discovers that he was planning to return to his post, she feels slighted. She wants all his attention and asks him to go even further and sacrifice his duty and livelihood for her. They would roam the mountains on horseback together living a fulfilling life of crime if only he deserted his post. For someone with narcissistic tendencies, it is always a matter of all or nothing and even all is just not enough or good enough for them.

When put on the spot, Don José hesitates for a moment, and she gets annoyed and angry. She even questions his love for her because if he really loved her, he would do absolutely anything to be with her. Ironically, he does show her at the end what is willing to do in the name of what he perceives and designates as love.

At this point, the impulsive young soldier gives in to the domineering Carmen and decides to go along with her fantasy; he is under the impression that he is in love with her, and worse, he believes that she loves him back. We already know and feel that it is not going to work out as there is another boy in town, the flashy and overly confident toreador Escamillo.

Leading a life of freedom and adventure is a recurring theme of this opera. In her view, she represents both; she gives no man her heart at least not for a long period of time, and she is free to reject anyone as she feels fit. Love is a free-roaming bird that is unbound and can go and land wherever it pleases, she sings with gusto.

As such, Don José is certainly not a good match. He is a go-between because the toreador just seems so much better suited to her temperament and lifestyle. Escamillo is a free spirit and a rebel who does not believe in rules and boundaries. In comparison, Don José is bland and boring and utterly naive. In this production, there is really nothing special about the young soldier, neither his looks nor his costume design, he is wearing jeans, and as one my opera companions stated, he looked like a “country bumpkin.”

Add to that the lack of chemistry between the two leads in this opera, perhaps due to the last-minute switch as the person destined to do Carmen had to cancel, and it seems implausible and even improbable that she should choose him.

The problem is also that we as the audience do not buy it, and even worse, cannot feel it. The actors sang very well and were proficient and professional throughout, but the main relationship never came to life and did not convince us and when they fail to resonate with us, the opera suffers as a result.

Neither me nor the charming ladies beside me felt the passion and love that was portrayed here, and it took away from our enjoyment and identification with the two characters. Yet, when she chooses Escamillo, it makes perfect sense, but he is just a foil and counterpoint to the rather insipid Don José, and we know too little to care about the toreador, merely that he appears to be the male version of Carmencita. But his entry on a motorcycle was quite impressive and it was easy to see and understand why everyone was a fan and was cheering for him, and if anyone was worthy of Carmen’s infatuation, it would have to be him.

Finally, since we find it hard to feel for and understand Don José, the ending makes little sense to us and does not have the emotional impact it should have had. She does seem to entice him and to egg him on by repeating that she would rather die than to be with him, but the fact that he commits this horrendous deed what is commonly referred to as a "crime of passion" seems rather far-fetched in this production.

As neither character is particularly likable, none of us shed a tear for them, which is unfortunate because good and classic opera is supposed to be a focal point and magnifying glass for the feelings and passions of life. Here, we did not care for either and were not particularly moved by their actions. One of them ends up dead, the other in prison, and neither is or was free nor was there much to speak of in terms of passion, adventure, and let alone, love.

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