Brahms saw Bizet's "Carmen" 23 times. Tchaikovsky called it "the perfect opera." Even the egomaniacal Wagner believed it was the only opera worthy to stand alongside his own.
"Carmen," which the Baltimore Opera Company performs this week and next, is a great work and deserves such praise. But one is tempted to ascribe the force with which the opera struck those men -- who detested each other and each other's music -- to the fact that they were men. For all of the excellences of Bizet's great work are tied to what one could call the male nightmare: what it is like to love a woman who has awakened physical passion as no other has, but who no longer returns that passion; a woman who has, in fact, fallen in love with another man.
One could argue that "Carmen's" tale of sexual jealousy and murderous retribution could be called the female nightmare as well. But Bizet and his librettists understood male inadequacy and insecurity with insights that were not to be matched until those of Freud in the next century. And in the character of Carmen herself Bizet created the prototype of the modern woman. For the composer understood that Carmen's "crime" is that she insists on the same sexual prerogative as a man. To paraphrase the words of her credo, the famous "Habanera," she will love whomever and whenever she chooses and she will be no man's possession. "Carmen" is more than the greatest French opera of the 19th century; it is, as Nietzsche put it, the opera that depicts the future relations between the sexes: "Love as fate, as fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel -- and thus true to nature! Love . . . as the war of the sexes and . . . their mortral hatred [for one another]."
Thus there are two ways of describing the action of "Carmen." The usual way is from the male perspective, as this entry from the "Larousse" encyclopedia indicates: "For the love of Carmen, a gypsy, Don Jose, who is a corporal in the dragoons, deserts and becomes a smuggler; in the end, he kills his mistress, who had left him for a matador."
But what makes "Carmen" extraordinary is that it makes us understand the events from Carmen's point of view: Because she is grateful to him, Carmen sleeps with Jose. Because he becomes completely obsessed by her, he deserts his post and joins the gypsies. Any feeling Carmen may have had for him, however, is poisoned by the quarreling engendered by his jealousy, insecurity and possessiveness. When she abandons him and takes up with the more secure and more genuinely loving matador Escamillo, Jose, who cannot accept her independence, murders Carmen.
As an operatic character who stands for the female, Carmen can be compared to Mozart's Don Giovanni, who has a comparable mythic status in regard to maleness. But whereas Giovanni is almost an abstract personification of male sexual desire, Carmen is all too concrete an embodiment of an actual woman. It's
interesting that Carmen's musical numbers are never referred to by their texts or by conventional operatic names but by dance designations such as habanera or seguidilla. It is not music that appeals to the brain (it is not intellectual) or even to the heart (it is not emotional). Carmen's music aims lower, and one responds to it with one's hips. Hers is the most memorable music in the opera. Jose becomes obsessed by it and by her -- and so do we.
What Jose is like before he encounters Carmen can be best gauged by looking at his relationship with Micaela -- the "good girl," the Victorian "angel in the house" -- that his mother has selected for him. The latter's music is lyrical and sweet and ultimately unmemorable. She and Jose talk about their mutual affection for their village and his mother. A kiss on the cheek is all that transpires between them. No wonder Jose's response to Carmen's habanera is fatal attraction.
How fatal that attraction is can be judged by the famous "Flower Song," in which Jose declares his love for Carmen, and by the way that Carmen responds to it. Jose has just returned from the prison term he has endured in Carmen's stead (as the officer in charge of her arrest, he permitted her to escape). After dancing for him, she expects them to make love. But when he hears a bugle recalling troops to the barracks, he becomes frightened and wants to leave. She mocks his manhood and he responds with the Flower Song ("La fleur que tu m'avais jetee") that sentimentally recalls the unsentimental way in which she took the initiative with him.
Though the song declares how much he desires her, it shows how unsuited Jose is for Carmen. The climax of the song begins with words to the effect that Carmen only had to look at Jose in order to possess him. Then the orchestral accompaniment cuts off completely, leaving Jose utterly alone in one of the most treacherously exposed passages in the tenor repertory. "Et j'etais une chose a toi" ("and I was a thing belonging to you"), Jose sings, beginning pianissimo, ascending the scale to the high