I’m delighted to say that, two weeks before opening, our season of Carmen at West Australian Opera is already sold out. And, just as I did for Janáček a few posts ago, here is a guided playlist to Carmen, as you prepare to attend a performance.
Bizet is one of my favourite composers, particularly for his dramatic instincts and wonderful orchestral writing. The most famous blast of Spanish air comes in the first seconds of Carmen, with locale, culture, passion and vivacity all in one hot little package:
The two halves of that prelude prefigure the two sides of the evening to come – extroversion and sunlight, set in stark contrast to dark brooding obsession. The story is all right there at the start, as in all the best overtures (think La traviata, Lohengrin, …).
A more tender, intimate orchestral colour comes at the start of our second half, the Entr’acte to Act Three. Lots about Carmen offended early audiences, but this Entr’acte is an unabashed masterpiece of conventional beauty – simplicity achieved with great subtlety.
It’s the arias and ensembles which dominate the evening, and the most famous of all is the Habanera of Carmen herself. This is the piece which Bizet stole from a cabaret original in the final days before the first performance, desperately trying to appease his diva with a vehicle she would be satisfied with. I think it worked! The sinuous chromatic descent of her opening line has come to stand for femmes fatale ever since. Here’s Elīna Garanča, one of our reigning Carmens.
One of the wonderful things about the opera for singers is that every major role has at least one fantastic aria to sing. For the tenor, there’s the Flower Song. For the baritone, there’s the Toreador Song. For the soprano, there’s Micaela’s aria, here sung by the wonderful Ileana Cotrubas.
And for the other roles, there is plenty to get their teeth into. The Quintet in Act Two is a fiendish challenge in threading the needle for five singers, all at once. There is so much life bursting through every note of this opera – with not a single wasted stitch. And all this from someone who, shortly after the premiere, would be dead. What would Bizet have written had he lived for another forty years? And how different would our operatic world look? Composers – Bizet and Mozart included – who produce dramatic music which satisfies both the casual pleasure-seeker and the professional, which masks incredible virtuosity under an accessible surface, don’t appear often.
I’ll finish this playlist with the great chorus of Act Four, where the crowds acclaim the appearance of the toreros. This is power in full play. The Spanish music of the first Prelude returns, with an undertow of danger and arousal. And the chorus have one of the best sings of their lives, with each voice section featured in turn. This is opera at its best – telling stories through the power of the human voice.
Until next time