'Carmen' is a nightmare -- for men Music: Bizet's great opera about a liberated woman and sexual jealousy reaches extraordinary psychological depths.

March 15, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

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 over the next three weeks, is a great work and deserves such praise. But it's tempting to ascribe the force with which the opera struck these men -- who detested one another and one another's music -- to the fact that they were men.

For Bizet's great work expresses what one could call the male nightmare: what it is like to love a woman who has fallen in love with another man.

"Carmen's" tale of sexual jealousy and murderous retribution, set in 19th-century Spain, 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 several decades later.

In the character of Carmen, Bizet created the prototype of the modern woman. The composer understood that her "crime" is that she insists on the same sexual prerogative as a man. To paraphrase the words of her credo in her "habanera": She will love whomever and whenever she chooses, and she will be no man's possession.

Her "habanera" -- not a Gypsy melody, incidentally, but the composer's adaptation of an Afro-Cuban dance form -- exudes feline grace, impetuousness and brooding lyric power, as well as wit and sexual mystery. That these qualities are to be found everywhere in "Carmen" is what makes it the greatest of all French operas.

But "Carmen" is also, 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 mortal hatred [for one another]."

Thus, there are two ways of describing the action of "Carmen." The usual way is from the male perspective: Because of his passion for the Gypsy, Carmen, Don Jose, an army corporal, deserts his post and joins her band of outlaws; when Carmen leaves him for a matador, he murders her.

But what makes "Carmen" extraordinary is that it makes us understand the events from Carmen's point of view. Because she is grateful, Carmen sleeps with Don 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 male status. 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 designations, but by dance designations such as habanera or seguillada. It is not music that appeals to the brain or even to the heart. 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" -- that his mother has selected for him. Micaela's music is lyrical and sweet and ultimately unmemorable. She and Jose talk about 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" ("The flower that you threw me") -- that sentimentally recalls the unsentimental way she took the initiative.

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