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 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 many 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 over-the-top, nothing she does . . . at least for me . . . is "too much" so as to become unbelievable. But. the symbolic stuff (which I love) can lend 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. A spicy girl. While she may seem like a girl who just gets into a bit of trouble the fact is, she's a criminal from the beginning. The Habanera is Carmen is getting a lay of the land, scoping out a possible way out of future trouble. She identifies Jose as someone she can use, trick and manipulate into whatever she needs. She senses this from the start. She uses the factory fight and her subsequent escape – (with Jose’s aid) merely as a preliminary, easy exercise and possible testing of her hold on him. I've never been convinced Carmen isn’t always looking ahead to the future, foreseeing trouble in it. Neither have I ever believed she’s as carefree as she pretends (and is usually portrayed). There are reasons she consults and holds stock in the tarot. Anyone who falls for the love story between Jose and Carmen is, buying into something that really isn’t there and thus, not unlike Jose, being seduced.

Carmen also appears to be a criminal who, like so many adrenaline junkies, almost obsessively keeps moving on to bigger things, feeding 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, of course, sex. Those truly addicted to that rush push themselves further and further. sometimes to the point of their ultimate demise, which is precisely what happens to our “heroine.”

Carmen’s attraction to Escamillo is instant because here is, for lack of a better word, an Übermensch; a human male who (albeit advantaged through both superior intelligence and artificial weaponry) wins - to the death, battles with the most powerful animal – another male, from another species. A man, who, like Carmen, appears to have 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 rush, of course, being possible only in death itself.

Carmen, too, senses this same thing for she pretty much self-orchestrates her “orgasme final” with the long-ago selected Jose as 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 . . . arrive at a blistering point of no return, with nothing more left to do than what she set out for them to, perhaps from the beginning. That Carmen often used sex to get everything she “wants” is symbolically interesting (and in its own way, more than a bit disturbing) her demise is met by: (a) the violent plunging of a dagger into her; and (b) outside of the bull (i.e., male) arena.

Carmen never asks to be liked, but like a beautiful, poisonous spider lures us into her web, making us think she may have something “pretty” to offer. She doesn’t. That appearance, much 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 which, while not pretty is 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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