March 23, 2014

Carmen, Eugene Onegin, Werther, Pagliacci and their endings

Why did Carmen fail in its first production in 1875? Bizet went to his grave believing that he had never succeeded in creating a popular success; that Carmen was one more disappointment, joining The Pearl Fishers, The Fair Maid of Perth, Djarmila, Dr. Miracle and others.
Canio: a successful butcher.

When a great opera is first received with hostility, there is usually no one single reason. Such phenomena generally involves a spider's web of circumstances. Carmen is no different. Many have pointed to the post-mortem addition of sung recitatives by Ernest Giraud to replace the original spoken dialogue. But I'm thinking about the violent ending.

Carmen  premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1875. This theater had, from its earliest years, catered to a particular kind of audience. Large-scale epic productions with ballet and significant chorus parts were more the norm at the Paris Opéra. Here were serious, substantive subjects based on Greek mythology, Biblical stories and the like, appealing to educated (read: "wealthy") audiences.

Though there are always exceptions, the Opéra Comique tended more towards middle-class entertainments: less intellectually challenging, with tuneful scores. Arias were often couplets, i.e. verse with chorus. Ballet and huge choral passages were not so prominent. And, significantly, love stories would either have a "happily ever after ending" (boy ends up with the girl) or a "sad & tragic ending" (boy or girl or both kick the bucket).

If death of a leading character was involved, particularly if she happened to be of the soprano persuasion, it would be what might be called a "pretty death": whether she took some poison or had a touch of tuberculosis (cough cough kiffy kiffy cough), a dying soprano might well appear to be going to sleep as she bid the world adieu. This tradition continued through such characters as Puccini's Mimi.

So imagine yourself as a happy member of the bourgeoisie on the evening of March 3, 1875, with tickets to see the new opera by Bizet: Carmen. Word on the street has it that it's an exotic tale of old Seville and a sultry gypsy. That sounds way COOL! Castanets and tambourines and fiery gypsy dances? You be DOWN with that!

As the evening progresses, you're finding it a bit heavy going, although it has some entertaining moments. Time for the final scene: the jealous soldier-boy is going to beg the gypsy girl to take him back.

You sure weren't expecting to see her BUTCHERED IN FRONT OF YOU right there on stage. Mon dieu! Revolting! Disgusting! What kind of offensive garbage IS this?!?!?

I notice that quite a lot of middle-class folks in contemporary America have no problem confessing an addiction to the PBS soap opera Downton Abbey. (Full disclosure: I like it myself.) But a large proportion of Downton-ites would never even consider watching "Breaking Bad". And why? "It's unpleasant". "Too violent". "Too graphic". Of course, the characters in Downton can be just as rotten as the characters on more violent shows. But they wear pretty clothes, live in a pretty house and speak cultivated English, so it's "nicer".  Fine; but if graphic TV dramas encounter such push-back in 2014, imagine proper French opera-lovers seeing the violent death of a woman onstage 139 years earlier; something never before seen.

What were they expecting? I can tell you by referencing two other operas, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (1879) and Massenet's Werther 1892). Both works deal with men hopelessly obsessed with an unobtainable woman, begging their respective women to return their love. 

In Onegin, the title character realizes too late that Tatiana is the love of his life. In their final duet, she tearfully tells him that it's too late; she's a married woman now. As she walks off, leaving him alone on the stage, he collapses, crushed by the realization that his life is ruined.

In Werther, once again our male protagonist has latched onto a respectable married woman who is tragically unavailable to him. Believing life to be ruined, he kills himself with a pistol.

Both of these conclusions fit into the paradigm of "acceptable" deaths on the lyric stage from the point of view of a mid-19th century audience. A man sobbing because he's lost his true love? Acceptable. A man shooting himself because of lost love? Acceptable.

A man butchering a woman with a knife? MON DIEU!!! You see, Bizet didn't play the game; he confounded expectations in a manner doomed to offend.

One more famous opera to consider: Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, which debuted the same year as Werther. In this finale, Canio the clown famously butchers his unfaithful wife Nedda in front of both the stage audience watching his "comedy" and you and me in the actual audience. 

But Italian audiences did not boo or scream "DIO MIO!" in horror. Why not? Because now the Italians had invented this cool scuola nuova of opera called Verismo. This style, ostensibly dedicated to unvarnished "truth", was no longer interested in "pretty deaths", maidenly virginal sopranos or dashing, heroic tenors. No, verismo composers turned their attention to the seedy side of life: clowns and peasants and the like. In verismo operas, if you suspect your wife of being unfaithful, DUH! Of COURSE she is! Don't be naive!

But here's the thing: Bizet beat his Italian colleagues to the punch seventeen years earlier. Carmen can be considered the first truly verismo opera. Perhaps the passing of time, bringing with it more tolerance for graphic violence, also helped Bizet's masterpiece to gain acceptance througout the opera world.


  1. What a fantastic and insightful perspective. You educate me always!!

  2. Have you ever thought about going into this music stuff full-time? You'd probably be pretty good at it.

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