by Dr. Carol Garrard
Arizona Opera brings its Carmen to Tucson January 30 and 31, 2016. Carmen has of course been here before; it’s an opera that gets continually recycled. Part of its enduring allure is its searching examination of one of the deepest urges of the human psyche—the explosive power of passionate jealousy. At its simplest level, this is the plot of the eternal triangle: boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl moves on to love someone else, boy kills girl in rage. That plot appears regularly in the Arizona Daily Star in news items relating “domestic violence” homicides. There the whole arc of the Carmen story could be related in a few sentences:
Freedom-loving Girl Murdered by Rejected Lover
“I adored her,” sobbed ex-army corporal José Navarro, as he was arrested after confessing to the stabbing death of Carmen Etchalar. Etchalar, a local cigarette-factory worker, had also had considerable success here in Tucson in her secondary career as a singer and dancer at taverns such as The Bashful Bandit. Navarro readily admitted the murder, explaining “She told me she didn’t love me anymore, and she loved someone else, named Escamillo. Then she threw the ring I had placed on her finger in my face. So I stabbed her twice, and watched the light go out of her eyes.” Navarro’s attorney stated that he would offer “it was fate” as the defense for his client.
Of course, in real life no defense attorney would be so crazy. But while Bizet’s Carmen tells the same grimly familiar vulgar story, it manages to convince us that indeed fate spun the plot. The Fate motive turns every screw of the plot, from the Prelude where it is juxtaposed to the Toreador Song, to the fall of the curtain, where it thunders forth, once more on the heels of the Toreador Song as Jose prostrates himself over the body of Carmen.
Bizet’s acknowledged source for Carmen was a novella by Prosper Mérimée which appeared in 1845. Mérimée was a French novelist who also had a busy official career. he was Inspector General of Historical Monuments in France. He travelled throughout the country classifying its menhirs (megaliths), the French versions of Stonehenge and the Avebury Stones. Mérimée correctly recognized that these works were Neolithic. He fought furiously with the builders of his day, who wished to tear them down and cannibalize the stones for roads and walls. He also was an expert linguist; he was the first to identity the language of gypsies, Roma, as an Indo-European language, distantly related to Sanskrit, and thus the Roma people had emigrated from northern India. Prior to Mérimée, people believed that “gypsies” had come from Egypt, hence the name.)
Mérimée’s story has the triangle too—Carmen, Don Jose, and a picador (notably NOT the matador) named Lucas. But the reader never sees Lucas. Don Jose reports to the narrator (a stylized Mérimée) that he gave a bull’s cockade to Carmen, and she put this into her hair. This was the act which precipitated Don Jose taking Carmen away on his horse to a deserted gorge, where he first pleads with her to go back to him, and then kills her.
Mérimée may have supplied the basic plot, but the tone of the opera is quite different. The epigraph of Mérimée’s novella is about as squalid as it comes: “Every woman is mere bitterness, but she has two good moments: one is when she is lying on the bed, and the other when lying in her grave.” And Mérimée’s use of the fate motive itself is rather squalid. Three times Mérimée’s Carmen tells Jose that she knows he will kill her. How? “I’ve read it in the coffee grounds that you and I are to end our lives together.” Contrast this mundane information with Bizet’s riveting scene where the fortune teller, Carmen, learns her own fortune through the cards she deals.
The elevation of the fate theme to tragedy goes back even earlier than to Mérimée. It originates in a brilliant poem by Alexander Pushkin, called “The Gypsies.” Mérimée, that brilliant linguist, translated Pushkin’s poem from Russian into French. Indeed, Pushkin and Mérimée carried on a lively correspondence. As a very young man, Mérimée played a literary hoax on French critics. he published works that pretended to be by a Spanish woman dramatist. Then he published La Guzla, which fooled the French into thinking it was the translation by Mérimée of Illyrian national songs and poems. When he revealed, giggling, that both were from his own imagination, the French establishment were not amused. Pushkin however, who had also been duped and printed these works in his own periodical, took his own bamboozlement with amused admiration.
When Mérimée translated Pushkin’s poem, he took the basic plot, but lowered its tone. Pushkin’s poem tells the story of Aleko, a Russian aristocrat who flees society to join a band of gypsies. He then goes through some kind of marriage ceremony with Zemfira, a young and beautiful girl, and then suspects her of betraying him with another young gypsy. He follows them both to discover them in flagrante delicto, and stabs them both.
The Old Gypsy dismisses Aleko from the band, uttering these words:
Depart from us, oh man of pride! …
The heathen freedom you have known
You claim it for yourself alone.
Here, in a few concentrated lines, is the answer to the conundrum of Bizet’s Don Jose. Carmen doesn’t crave love; she has plenty of love. What she wants is freedom—the freedom that a man claims, to love and then to move on to another. (She announced her attitude towards life and love in the Habanera, and Jose should have been paying attention!) Jose, like his 2016 followers who kill their Tucson girlfriends, will not grant her that freedom. There is the tragedy of machismo in a nutshell.
Pushkin concludes “The Gypsies” with a brief stanza addressing gypsy life. Its last two lines, even in English translation, still have the power to stir the reader:
Deep in your wilderness, disaster
For wandering tents in ambush waits;
Grim passion everywhere is master,
And no one can avoid the Fates.
Powerful as the poem is, Bizet’s music, which uses all its allied arts of stagecraft, acting, spectacle and drama, tells us more about the human condition than language alone can articulate.
Carol Garrard, immediate past president of the Opera Guild, is a historian and author or co-author of books and articles on Russian themes.