A Note from the Maestro
by Maestro Joseph Rescigno
The great familiarity that audiences have with a beloved work like Carmen results in their bringing steamer trunks of baggage to it. The ongoing challenge for performers—especially for those who have performed it many times—is to cut through this familiarity and re-present the magic that caused this opera to become the most popular in the French repertoire. If you love Carmen, you are not alone. Johannes Brahms is reported to have attended Carmen twenty times in 1876 alone. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky called it “one of the most perfect operas of our day” in an 1878 letter.
It is a difficult piece to perform, not so much in a technical sense, but stylistically and emotionally. It has elegance and calls for restraint, particularly in its many evocative, descriptive passages for the orchestra and for the chorus with orchestra. Rousing music surrounds the bullring, and Micaëla’s innocence could not be clearer in Act I. Yet we can contrast that innocence with the intensity of the Act III music in which she challenges not only José but also Carmen and the smugglers. The greatest intensity pervades the final confrontation between José and Carmen, of course.
The gift that Bizet gives the performers, on the other hand, is utter timelessness. Directors have moved the time and place of its setting but, even when unchanged on the surface, audiences take to it instantly and wholeheartedly. There are simply no temporal or geographic barriers. The story that so shocked the audience of l’Opéra-Comique on opening night, and the rebellious and wanton character of Carmen, have lost none of their dramatic power.
The opera’s unifying “fate motive” appears in the overture and is repeated often to restore our sense of foreboding. No reprise is more astonishing, however, than the one we hear immediately before José swears his love and describes his obsession with Carmen in Act II (“La fleur que tu m’avait jetée” [The flower that you threw to me]). In this reprise, the melody is instantly recognizable, but Bizet’s choice of the English horn turns it into an ardent, yearning love song. This choice of a single instrument dramatically alters the mood, which just goes to prove that there are no “small” choices in composition.
The Act II English horn solo is one of many opportunities for individuals in the pit to shine. Also listen for the first cello and first violin in Act I as Zuniga interrogates Carmen after her arrest. Take note as well of the oboe in the Act IV prelude. The flute has several lovely solos. It shines most obviously in the opening of the Act III prelude, but it is also important before Carmen’s Act I “Séguedille.” In fact, the flute is very much Carmen’s instrument. When she is in full seductress mode, the flute often accompanies her, along with very light strings.
The most basic contribution the conductor makes lies in clarifying a work’s structure (by which we primarily mean the relationships among its sections), and this is accomplished in large measure by judicious pacing. For example, the Act II quintet is like a symphonic scherzo-trio-scherzo, and relatively brisk pacing, with only a slight relaxation in tempo in the middle section, helps illuminate that form. (It may be noted, further, that Bizet puns by assigning only three singers to that middle “trio” section whereas the bracketing scherzo sections involve the entire quintet.)
The chorus of cigarette factory girls, on the other hand, is often played a great deal faster than Bizet’s metronome indication, sapping it of some of its color and atmosphere. Bizet’s choice for the opening tempo does a good job of depicting the teasing and sensuality of a group of women returning from a break in factory work on a hot afternoon in Seville. As it happens, if we start too fast, we can also run into something of a conductorial speed trap as we segue into the next section. So I find that Bizet’s tempo is a good one for both technical and dramatic reasons.
In the Act IV final duet, it falls to the conductor to showcase the realism that shocked the Opéra-Comique audience in 1875. We cannot do this without wonderful singing actors, of course, but the challenge to the conductor is to develop a plan across many shifts between speech-like recitative and singing in changing tempos. For me, the structure that mirrors the volatility of Don José before he kills Carmen bears some resemblance to the alternating urgency and calm in the extended dialogue between Tamino and the High Priest in Mozart’s Magic Flute. But the Carmen duet is far more melodramatic, of course. The Fate motive bursts forth periodically to raise the heat, and the toreador’s theme comes from the crowd offstage, adding another layer of musical and dramatic complexity. We want to build toward the most intense moment and maintain discipline until José finally stabs Carmen. The task here is to portray nothing so much as instability, and we can only build toward a great climax with the most rigorous concentration and control.
This brilliant final duet, in what is one of the most important operas of the repertory, only underlines the tragedy of Bizet’s early demise so soon after the opera was written. The growth from Bizet’s astounding Symphony in C, written at age 17, to Carmen, at age 36, is enormous. Therefore, we ask: Would Carmen’s success soon after its poor initial reception have encouraged Bizet to continue exploring a quite-original style that stands now as a harbinger of the verismo school more than a decade before that school took shape in Italy? How would his work have evolved? A case in point is supplied by the singing that we often hear in the place of Carmen’s original spoken dialogue. Such singing was required by “grand opera”; Charles Gounod wrote his own adaptation for Faust after its premiere, as did Jules Massenet for Manon. While we easily recognize that composer Ernest Guiraud adapted Carmen based on Bizet’s music, we are still left to wonder whether Bizet would have come up with something as completely outside expectations as Carmen itself originally was. And what might that have been? It is, after all, not given to most mortals to be able to divine the answer any more than most of us could conjure up Carmen in the first place. So Bizet’s adaptation of Carmen must be added to the music lover’s list of irretrievable losses along with how Giacomo Puccini might have finished Turandot or how Alban Berg might have completed Lulu, as well as what might have come from the pens of composers like Mozart, Schubert, and Pergolesi who, along with Bizet, died especially young.
My first contact with Carmen was a recording with Risë Stevens, conducted by Fritz Reiner. It still remains one of my favorites, along with the de los Angeles-Beecham recording. But when performers come together to mount a “war horse” like this, we all must strip our minds of the many performances we have heard or even participated in. The goal must be to cultivate a personal connection to the printed page and a deep appreciation of the particular talents of each member of the team. How will Carmen use her voice to meet the enormous challenge of portraying her sexuality without falling into parody? How will José express his volatility and at-least-temporary insanity? As ever, the conductor’s job is to give the artists both breathing room and support while representing the composer to the audience.
- by Maestro Joseph Rescigno, October 2012
Joseph Rescigno has served for 28 years as Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor of the Florentine Opera Company.