Saturday, April 16, 2016

Killing Carmen: Thoughts on a Classic

I’m lucky. It has never been a requirement of mine that I like or even particularly admire anyone in order to find them fascinating enough to want to watch or read about. This is true of fictional as well as historical (or even currently alive) persons.

I think somehow many of us feel “guilty” for watching things like Carmen, because we’re preoccupying ourselves with a central character possessing so little (if anything) which we may deem redeemable. But Carmen is fascinating. Like many other colorful criminals or outcasts of society we can be fascinated, even mesmerized by the way they work and live.

Carmen lends herself to a wide variety of interpretations, and while a lot of folk seem to view her as being some archetypal character (in the Jungian sense), I don’t. I see her less as symbol and more as genuine and real for, certainly, while she may be a little over-the-top, nothing she does is so much so as to become unbelievable. But the symbolic stuff (which I love) lends much to our enjoyment - even if we possibly don't understand it or agree on what it means.

When we meet Carmen she’s working the cigarette factory – she likes to sing and dance. She likes to fight. She’s a spicy girl. She gets in a bit of trouble. She’s a criminal from the beginning. I have always seen the Habanera as basically Carmen’s getting a lay of the land, scoping out a way out of future trouble. Immediately she identifies Jose as someone she can use, trick and manipulate into whatever she needs. I’ve always thought the factory fight and her subsequent escape – with Jose’s aid –merely a preliminary and easy exercise to test her hold on him. (And don’t tell me Carmen isn’t always looking ahead to the future and seeing trouble in it or that she’s as “care free” as she pretends – there are reasons she consults and holds stock in the tarot.) Anyone who falls for the love story part of their relationship is, I think, buying into something that really isn’t there and thus, like Jose, has been seduced.

Carmen is also, in my estimation, a criminal who, like so many adrenaline junkies must necessarily keep moving on to bigger things to feed the addiction. The adrenaline “rush” which comes from criminal activity can certainly be experienced through other (natural) means such as athletics (including risk taking things such as cliff diving, or parachuting) and through sex. Those truly addicted to that rush push themselves further and further sometimes to the point of their demise – which is exactly what happens to our “heroine.”

Carmen’s attraction to Escamillo is instant because here is an Übermensch – a human male who wins to the death battles (albeit advantaged through both superior intelligence and artificial weaponry) with the most powerful animal – another male from another species. A man, who, like Carmen, has no natural fear of death. In this regard, as exciting as it sounds, winning the bullfight would have to become only the penultimate orgasmic experience, the ultimate only being possible in death itself.

Carmen, too, must sense this same thing for she pretty much self orchestrates her “orgasme final” with the long-ago selected Jose her chosen executioner. Taunting, humiliating him she increases the element of danger and violence to the point where physically and psychologically they are well past fever pitch and at blistering point of no return with nothing left to do but what she set out for them to. That Carmen often used sex to get everything she “wants” I find it symbolically interesting (as well as more than just a bit disturbing) her demise is met by: (a) the violent plunging of a dagger into her; and (b) outside of a bull (male) arena.

Carmen never asks to be liked, but like a pretty, poisonous spider she lures us into thinking she may have something “pretty” to offer. But she doesn’t. She (like the music Bizet gives her) is a façade. What she really offers is a bloody, violent, unromantic, irredeemable, look at part of our baser nature. No, not pretty. But pretty fascinating

(Photos: Kate Aldrich as Carmen/Jonas Kaufmann and Richard Troxell as Jose).

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Blogger Will said...

You have put into print several points I feel about Carmen. Back in the days of the 1910 Victor Book of the Opera, Carmen was a big bad vamp who destroys innocent little country boys for her own gratification. Much of that was because the original (and vitally important) spoken dialog had been replaced by those damned, deadly, sung recitatives with different texts and vastly less information. In the dialog we learn that Jose killed a man back home (his reason for fleeing Navarra for Seville) over the outcome of a tennis match. Know that and everything about the Carmen/Jose relationship changes. I agree entirely that he is her chosen executioner, and he is so because she has read the cards (I don't think act three is the first time she has seen her own death and recognizes him as the one after the Habanera -- or even during it.

I do not like the Carmens who go kicking and screaming to their deaths in act 4. Great as Rise Stevens was in the role, I couldn't take her titanic struggle with her various Joses for survival. She believes in inexorable fate; she has read those cards, knows what is inevitably going to happen and that any thought of escape is futile, thus her line "What good is all this, all these superfluous words?" She knows this the time and he the man and she wants to get it over with.

There is, of course, no chance that I would ever get to direct the opera but in my production, after the main part of the duet is over Jose exclaims "Alright, damn you!" and I'd have him literally draw a line in the sand with his knife. Looking straight at his face, Carmen would calmly and determinedly walk toward the portal of the bull ring, crossing the line. Jose, weak and frantic, backs up and draws another line. She crosses. Now, his back almost literally to the wall of the bull ring, he draws a third and final line. She crosses and he lashes out with the knife. It's a kind of passive aggressive suicide.

May 30, 2016 at 7:51 AM  
Blogger Sharky said...

Thanks, Bill! I LOVE your comment and LOVE your idea for the finale. I got chills seeing it in my head. Carmen is one I'd love to direct too, and in a directorial workshop (way back in my school days) I directed the Card Scene. I love it when friends see things similarly!


June 2, 2016 at 3:00 PM  

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