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, perceived as redeemable. But, Carmen is an eternally interesting character, so, as with many colorful criminals or outcasts of society, we may become fascinated . . . even mesmerized, by the way they work and lives vastly different than our own.

As with any stage creature, Carmen lends herself to a wide variety of interpretations and while many view her as being an archetypal character (in the Jungian sense), I don’t think she is. I believe in her less as a symbol and more as genuine and flawed character with her own set of principles. While she may be a over-the-top, nothing she does, at least for me - and according to her own standards, ever really too much so as to become unbelievable. That being said, the symbolic stuff can lend much to our enjoyment, even if we possibly don't fully grasp it, or disagree with one another on the meaning.

When first we meet our Carmencita she’s working at the cigarette factory, and we like her, mostly because she's colorful and likes to sing and dance a lot. Ah, but she also likes to fight. She's what some would call a spicy lady. While she may seem like a girl who just gets into the occasional bit of trouble, the fact of the matter is she's a criminal from the very beginning. Her Habanera is simply Carmen getting a lay of the land, scoping out a possible escape path from trouble she's already planning on getting into. She identifies Jose as someone she can use, someone to trick and manipulate into whatever she needs him to be, and she senses this from the start. Could it be she uses the factory fight and, with Jose's aiding and abetting, her subsequent escape merely as a preliminary exercise? A possible test to see how strongly her hold will be on him. I'm convinced Carmen always looks ahead to the future and always foresees trouble there. I also have never fully bought into her being as carefree as she pretends to be and is always singing about. There are reasons she consults and holds stock in the tarot. Anyone who falls for the "romance" between Jose and Carmen is buying into something that really isn’t there and thus, not unlike Jose, being seduced.

Like many criminals, Carmen also appears to be an adrenaline junkies, obsessively moving on to bigger things and feeding her addiction. The adrenaline “rush” which comes from criminal activity can certainly be experienced by other means such as extreme athletics - like risk taking activities such as cliff diving, or parachuting and, of course, sex. Adrenaline junkies are forever looking for that rush and push themselves further and further, sometimes to the point of their ultimate demise, which is precisely what happens to Bizet's heroine.

Carmen’s attraction to Escamillo is an instant one because here, for lack of a better word, is an Übermensch; a man who (albeit advantaged through both superior intelligence and artificial weaponry) fights to the death, battles with the most powerful of animals – a 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 achieved only by death itself.

Carmen, too, senses this same thing for she pretty much self-orchestrates her orgasme final having chosen Don Jose as her executioner. By taunting and humiliating him she increases the element of danger and violence to a point where, physically and psychologically, they are past fever pitch and have arrived arrive at the blistering point of no return, with nothing left to do other than that she set out to, perhaps from the very beginning. That Carmen often used sex to get everything she “wants” is, at minimum, symbolically interesting, not to mention in its own way, more than just a bit disturbing. One needs only consider how her demise is achieved 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 our baser nature which, while perhaps not pretty, endlessly fascinating.

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

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