In Carmen even the swishes of the trousers seem orchestrated. No part of the performance is relegated indecorous or immodest. Even the most subterranean components possess a gem-like quality, implausibly flashing like sequins that catch the spotlight and roam through the darkness to blind as well as ignite. Yet nothing shelters behind the cloistering honor of grape leaves. All revelations parade nakedly. This rawness requires a refinement of touch, a skilled handling that ameliorates the theme’s tendency to bruise against the raillery of its accompanying essence. At times, as when Carmen seduces Don José, the mezzo-soprano voice pierces through the auditorium so brazenly its darts cannot be received, but only regarded in a thick, plummeting rain of pure feeling—unassociated. The arrows fly past. Choral stampedes surge around the audience like whitewater tearing its seam at a protruding boulder. When operatic sweetness tucks in too tightly, the hypochondriac orchestra intervenes its foreboding leitmotif.
Mute, stiff with the chill of music, I feel shredded apart by a fury, by a depth of truthful mimicry that never directly penetrates. Like a carefree wanderer, I’m petrified in my tracks by the sudden onslaught of an urgent revolutionary battle. The dividing forces blow a terrific zephyr of spontaneously impassioned, yet skilled action. Clothes fray to rags, outward positions to limp recessions. Foreknowledge is absented. The capture of the present moment, achieved with a grand indifference, disregards my coincidental presence in the theater. As a witness, I am neither oppressed nor exalted with importance. I become obsolete.
If music such as this was composed through a delicate stint of the mind, an instinctive and wild sixth sense, I could properly estimate the caricature and correspond to the mercy of its symbolism. As it is, these circumstances exist only in the mirror of the selected artifice of the music, dictating their maxims in backwards spelling, in secrets indentured to reflection, to the breath at the nape of the neck. Carmen is a roomful of such mirrors, standing up against the darkness of cyclical treachery, ravenous discomfiture, exhibiting the lacuna that withholds honesty from us. The shades of pure intellect, the gloom of indolent habits, show up in the reflections with isinglass clarity: as their substance. The shadows which were before invulnerable, shining like the manipulated edge of a scimitar, are transcribed into a state of startling vulnerability, a product of the intuitive choreography of the mirror’s image. Sitting in a humble pause at Carmen’s disposal, mistrust, antagonism, and sententiousness are completely overwhelmed. Consequently, I demand the strength to survive the mixed messages that conflict with the previously understood counterpoint of love as the ideal, the savior, and the pinnacle. Sheathed by the hypocrisy reflected in truth by art—sensate and untouched by reason—I no longer know myself. Previous self-creation has worn threadbare, all that was previously known, discarded. How joyous then is the reunion to the known self. Later on, once I abandon the theatre, my lungs fill with the lazy comfort of simple breath, quitting the prescience of impending understanding. But after Carmen, a new imperative sets in. From now on I must revisit the wisdom gained from nonexistence—from music and art that carries humanity beyond the dream into pure, indivisible space. Like a penitent who continually rebaptizes, I’m unsure of my initiation into reform.
At times it feels nearly unbearable to sit as a wooden extension of the mezzanine, non-animated, non-dramatized, vacant of any significance other than to oppose, to wall in and separate the opera from bleeding its material into dilution. A tender ocean of lazy internalization sweeps me into its flaring swells, beneath an eyelid of undulation that wants to resemble sleep, non-awareness, non-crystallization, dementia—or else sing out, brilliantly! But those places are no longer liquid—no longer natural, but staged. To lapse into sleep proves as unlikely here as it would be if standing trial for murder. If guerdoned, the melisma of these dreams could disembody Carmen’s hapless truth, if only for an aria’s worth of time. But throughout the opera that slip of cognizance never comes. The drama continues at all costs un-dissevered. The self exists on the cushioned seat as an enchantment, hermetically, hardly recognizable—like the autonomous world of a child as it clashes with outsiders. The layers of artifice—pomp and grandeur, on stage and off—achieve a mesmerizing of subjective reality, uniting the self to the experience of objectivity like a symbol that projects believers into the valves of universal belief.
Carmen herself is a supreme monarch. She dons nothing of the martyr; and wears no glamorous self-abnegation like a Florence Nightingale. She possesses no arms of the revolutionary, nor is she, though coquettish and seductive, an arriviste like Theodora. Her disposition is ruthless, unapologetic, and immutable. Carmen reigns almost diabolically rigid, wielding triumphantly and dangerously, the way of Peter the Great who carried a club at his magisterial side, ready to capriciously strike. More dangerous is Carmen, because her inflexibility never bends its stakes across the opposable terrain of convention and decorum, pushing those things over the edge, refusing a servile liaison. The tobacco factory shift of sanctimonious white worn in the first act does not, when exchanged for a crimson in the second, bleach the fire of her penetrating mood, blandly concurring the two clashing tones into the charming, roseate warmth of a blushing flirt—into a neutralizing pink. No, like a classical god, she is born into the first act already formed. Subsequent acts perpetually magnify, but do not progress or degrade her nature.
Carmen has been called the original femme fatale, as my program indicates. Though Carmen’s behavior proved scandalous in its day, the conception of women as a “dangerous pleasure” or “an irresistible evil” furrows its antecedents in classical mythology and religion, such icons as Eve, Salome, Jezebel, and Clytemnestra. The archetype recapitulates out of men’s fear of ultimate perdition at the uncontrollability of their own lust and desire, projected upon the object of their desire: the woman. Carmen is a man’s nightmare, a Titan, a psychologically manifested bandersnatch. “If I love you, be on your guard! (be on your guard!),” Carmen warns in “La Habenera.” The drama of Carmen is the drama of a man’s merciless insecurity, fear of emasculation and the perceived immortality of his desire’s sordid interest.
“(Love is a rebellious bird) Love!
(That none can tame,) Love!
(And it is well in vain that one calls it,) Love!
(Because it suits it to refuse.) Love!”
The trailing bloodhounds of man’s own guilt achieve the inevitable immolation of himself. This guilt, ready to enlist any victim, the master the easiest of all, ultimately catches the scent of the fiend—the woman, whose aphrodisiacal perfume occupies equal space in reality as in the man’s petrified illusion.
In this way, I view Carmen as a dream figure. The opera occurs inside a night of Don José’s restless sleep, as a dream turned nightmare. Bizet’s music stages the atmosphere of a dream. Notes of cloudiness, steam, and levitation waft through the lofty tiers as the story unfolds from the bubble of the unseen sleeper. Though Carmen is a dream-like revenant whose arias are strung up to the fascination and insurrection of Don José’s soul, she prevails as a woman. But not as a woman reflectively views herself, but as a woman constrained to a man’s vision, to the portrayal of herself according to the precedent that man has set, conducted by pretense, but also naturally, as naturally in the drama of Carmen as in real life. The creations elicited from us by others define identity as much as the constructions of introspection, and the two versions blend like substance into shadow. Man’s vision and understanding of women is as much a part of women as their own conceptions. When we look into the immateriality of a mirror, the suggestions limned by the glass guide fixations, transformations, and composure. In the same way, society emulates a cracked mirror upon which we estimate, alter, or secure a full identity.
At the time of Carmen’s release in 1875, as women developed a nascent independence from men, the theme of men shattered by the power of women surfaced with a vengeance. Women, in contrast, investigated the costs and sacrifices that independence entailed, the uncurbed power that men still occupied over them, even as they could ostensibly rebel—The Awakening of Kate Chopin. For men, unveiling a woman’s independence involved threats to masculinity, power, comfort and security. In the last century these themes have been exercised repeatedly, waxing and waning their dramatic stronghold, still lingering today in the indissoluble subtleties of gender relations, which interact with an increasingly gender fluid society. Contemporarily, the issues of Carmen remain as relevant as ever. Though the psychological rise and fall of Don José may feel archaic, it shouldn’t. We still live in an era of emboldened power grabs where a victim’s countering check likely offers an equal share of degradation as it does justice. Women face a conflicted freedom as it pertains to rejecting men. But the drama of today is also signified by Carmen herself—a figment, hardly human, narcissistic, indifferent, capricious——yet appealing. An uncanny symbol of love in the modern age.
The apotheosized Carmen foreshadows the amalgamation of current sentiments regarding love relations: the laissez-faire, fully-loaded implementation of sex into quotidian life, the mockery of romance and love as catalysts for deep union, the value of pleasure over loyalty, the acceptance of shallow intimacies and polyamorous non-commitments, and an undeniable crux—that love, in spite of brash attitude, still penetrates with a tremendous power. But unlike Carmen, the modern lover even debases sensuality—the lusciousness of color and symbol, of earth—of layers.
Carmen glows with blood, with the frothy occupant of her tongue’s desire. Her feet tread naked, robed only in the soot of her mistrust of chains, of bargains, a damask of wild armor like that of thorn or thistle, which advocates lust for danger, for anything that magnifies the slant of the hillside, the gripping underbelly of the metempirical vice as it lowers its stars in her eyes like jewels on a band. Carmen’s grip is that of sap. Her voice is towed from a spiral yawn in the earth, at the bottom of which she stands with her instrument agape, singing as if permanently undone from mechanism, as if always streaming, only abiding the primitive rhythms which coordinate evolutionary change. Her voice erodes the crust of surrounding ears, temperately molding them until they hear with a prehistoric shape as if doted on by the wind for millennia. She is a nocturnal animal whose spirit possesses forbidden nightlife. Carmen does not wink like a coquet determined to result. She winces and wails. Her beauty is not a trained beauty that loses its effect if injured, aged, or worn. Her beauty abides by the beauty of a natural state. The same could be said for Callas who played her so well. Carmen personifies love as sensuality.
Mired in the detrimental absence of sensuality, society premeditatively seeks it out, hardly familiar with its natural spontaneous overflow. Now we entertain the crude artifice of sensuality—pornography. Coupled with the vituperation of romance, courtship, and loyalty, deep deficiencies in intimacy emerge—an immense social poverty. Dearth reverts to crippled traditions and mores, to systems of intimacy related more to power than to love. For us, Carmen is not only Eve, but also the serpent.
Carmen displays the subconscious, dream-oriented anxieties caused by the fear of disunion, indifference, and the instability of love. Carmen’s mezzo echoes the customary villains who utilize this vocal range. The opera effectively swallows us into its nightmare, taking us to a core, internal relief, which reality, and often art, struggles to achieve. Bizet’s music suspends the limitations. During the radical shifts in composition, sub-auditory keys jangle at the hip of the melody to unlock corridors of fiction and enter the heart of it. Fiction adds nothing to the faculty of mental knowledge. What is gained is verity—a verity that can be tallied into fact like music into numbers, but is not the sum total of those facts—a fragile verity. Music is the dogged bodyguard of this verity, projecting all shades of its sphere. The menacing heads of fashion and attitude capitulate to the preventative measure of justice sourced not just in the music’s aesthetic or intellectual appeal, but in its primal power, editing all but the tongue of meaning. The orchestration unites the fiction to the reality of life. Each hypnosis crawls at the center of the music’s gravity. The grace of this composite surpasses the limited perspective offered by subjective viewing. Unbridled feeling effectively washes over every listener, distorting their ease of separation, individualism, and control. In the flying feeling of the senses, operating astride the stationary body, there is a brutal holiday of the self in which it contemplates union and disunion as perhaps never before. And that explains why Nietzsche returned night after night to melt into the arcane darkness of Carmen with a patience he described as the “first stage of holiness.” It was in this opera that Nietzsche’s conflicted attitudes towards women found escape. He would say that Carmen made him “a masterpiece.” All because the factory girl, the unflinching goddess, had devoured him——without a fight. Carmen succeeds in effortlessly donating contradictions as plausibilities.
Photo by Prudent-Louis Leray (1820-1879)