Friday, 16 November 2012

Gossip and Rebellion - the premiere of Carmen

Galli-Marie as Carmen
by Felix Nadar
In 1873, shortly before the end of the first run of Bizet's opera Djamileh at the Opéra Comique, the theatre's directors, Camille du Locle and Adolphe de Leuven asked him for a new opera. They wanted a light-hearted, three-act opera to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, suppliers of librettos to Offenbach. No subject was specified so Bizet suggested Carmen, based on Prosper Mérimée's novel. This might seem a rather strange subject matter for a popular, family opera but the 19th century operatic world is littered with the corpses of operas made from sanitised librettos. Bizet seems to have had a significant hand in shaping parts of the libretto, Halevy’s original verses for the habanera are far milder than Merimee. And his reaction to their softenings was, in their own words, ferocious.


The surprising thing is that the composer and librettists seem to have decided to stick closer to the novel, though Halévy had ideas about softening the plot by including a pure young girl, the character that became Micaela. And much else in the final opera is close to the Opéra Comique tradition, with its comic relief and local colour; even the subsidiary characters are familiar from the genre. But the essentially tragic nature of Carmen with its death of the heroine at the end was unsuitable for the image of the Opéra Comique. And ultimately, Bizet would go far beyond the Opéra Comique model to create a high tension drama, but initially a particular stumbling block was the tragic ending.

The first two singers considered for the title role, Zulma Bouffar and Marie Roze, both balked at the idea of being killed at the end. Bouffar had started life singing risqué songs before being discovered by Offenbach (not something which would have endeared her to Bizet); she was probably never a serious consideration and may in fact have been vetoed by du Locle. Roze had had some success after portraying an English girl in an Auber opera. Great success in London led to her marriage to the impresario Henry Mapleson. Roze was entirely unhappy at the idea of being murdered. So du Locle approached Marie-Célestine-Laurence Galli-Marié and she was perfectly happy to consider the role though she had no knowledge of Mérimée's heroine. This seems odd as something about her evoked Spain for her contemporaries. In the 1860s the composer Victor Massé had even suggested to the playwright Sardou that they collaborate on an opera for her based on Mérimée's novel.

Galli-Marié had had considerable success on the stage and had created the title role in Ambroise Thomas's Mignon. Born in 1840 to a singer at the opera, Claude-Marie-Mécène Marié de l'Isle, she was well trained by her father and developed into a fine singing actress whilst never quite achieving the stature of Nilsson or Patti.

Galli-Marié's husband had died in 1861 and she remained single. Writing in 1951, a former Director of the Opéra-Comique suggested, based on back-stage gossip, that Galli-Marié had fallen in love with Bizet. Bizet and Galli-Marié would not be the first leading lady and composer to give rise to rumours during the close confines of the rehearsal process (though also reputedly she was the mistress of Bizet's friend the composer Paladilhe). The gossip about her and Bizet was supposedly picked up from the first Don José and the first Escamillo, both of whom survived well into the 20th century. Her letters to Bizet don’t really give much indication, and Bizet’s wife and in-laws destroyed nearly all the family letters from this period after Bizet’s death. Quite what they were covering up, we don’t know and maybe never shall.

The development of the opera proved quite protracted, Galli-Marié was quite hard-nosed when it came to negotiating her salary. Finally in September 1874 the piece came to rehearsal at the Opéra-Comique. The rehearsal period was turbulent but gossip apart, we know very little about what exactly happened.

Meilhac and Halévy's considerable success in the boulevard theatres rather prejudiced the public against Carmen, which was to be their first work at the Opéra-Comique. It did not help that to Meilhac and Halévy, Carmen was just another piece (between 1855 and 1875 they collaborated on over forty works) They had four other works staged in Paris that Autumn; writing just before the première, Halévy was quite off-hand about the whole subject of Carmen.

If Meilhac and Halévy were a little off hand, at least they were aligned to Bizet's cause. Du Locle, now the sole director of the Opéra-Comique, had a more puzzling attitude to the opera that he had commissioned. Box office at the theatre was dwindling and du Locle now had no-one to blame but himself. Also, with Carmen, he was not involved in the dramatic and scenic presentation so he contented himself with making catty remarks about the work and about Bizet's music, despite liking Bizet personally. He did not invite any public figures to the premiere, and for various reasons there were quite a few in Paris at the time. This attitude communicated itself to the company; gossip was rife, the musicians rebellious. Normally calm and philosophical, Halévy actually lost his temper during the rehearsals.

By January 1875, rehearsals were taking place almost daily. The chorus rebelled and said that two of the choruses were unperformable. Later on in life, Halévy would go on to say that the training of the chorus was one of the greatest difficulties that they had faced when staging the work. The chorus of the Opéra-Comique were accustomed to singing ensembles whilst stationary; Bizet's ideas of a more naturalistic presentation was completely foreign to them. Eventually, du Locle was forced to add extra voices to the ensemble, at Bizet's instigation. The orchestra was also complaining about the score, saying it was beyond them. But many of these problems were conquered thanks to a longer than usual rehearsal period. By the time the work came to its first performance, the majority of those involved were behind Bizet and had come to see the value of his music.

Having written a libretto that remained relatively true to Mérimée's conception, the librettists then conducted a running battle with the singers in a vain attempt to water down the presentation of the opera. Meilhac and Halévy were used to pleasing their public and now they were worried about shocking the rather family-oriented audience at the Opéra-Comique. To us, it all seems rather harmless but in the context of the period, small incidents became important. Escamillo had to be stopped from patting the cheeks of the chorus girls. They wanted Galli-Marié to tone down her acting. But Galli-Marié believed in Carmen and refused to bow to demands.

Galli-Marié and Lhérie (Don José) were Bizet's strongest supporters. You can't help feeling that they relished the opportunities that Bizet gave them for performing characters rather more red-blooded than usual. So when du Locle suggested toning down the controversial ending, both singers threatened to resign, announcing that there could be no changes to their parts. This also meant that the Act Two duet stayed as Bizet intended, rather than breaking it up to facilitate applause.

But Bizet did make a remarkable number of changes; both words and music were constantly revised both small details and quite major details. Quite how many of these were forced upon him has been debated ever since. What we do have is the piano vocal score that Bizet produced and corrected before his death. This was done independently of the Opéra-Comique and is the closest thing we have to a definitive document of the musical score. Bizet was a perfectionist; he is said to have rewritten the Habanera thirteen times.

Despite the misgivings of the librettists, the failure of nerve of du Locle who had commissioned the work, the publicly stated loathing of the director of the Comédie-Francaise, the première happened on 3 March 1875.

The first Act was well received, especially the Habanera and the duet for Micaela and Don José. At the intermission, the response was warm and the second act started well. But as Bizet departed further from traditional forms, the audience cooled, and the absence of a ballet cannot have helped. During the second interval, the temperature was noticeably less warm and few people went backstage. Comparisons were made with Offenbach's Les Brigands to the detriment of Carmen; both works shared a similar setting to Act 3. By the last interval things were worse and the reception of Act 4 was glacial.

Bizet was noticeably depressed by this reaction and had difficulty in hiding his reaction from his close friends and well-wishers. But after a few days he recovered enough to try and improve the musical performance. Galli-Marié was brilliant and Bouhy, as Escamillo, was more than adequate. But the rest had been rather mediocre. It is perhaps unfortunate that Lhérie, having supported Bizet when it came to changes to the opera, should have proved such a poor Don José. Bizet had a harmonium in the wings, to be played to help keep Lhérie in tune!

At subsequent performances the audience came to appreciate the opera and it could possibly have been a decent success. Word of mouth might have helped the opera develop a favourable reaction, but unfortunately the press reviews were violently against the opera. Such a strong reaction could have been controlled and altered if du Locle had been a better supporter of the opera. Many contemporary critics were quite venal and it was part of the theatre director's job to manage the audience and the critics. That du Locle did not do so was a strong contributory factor in the opera's failure. Reading the reviews today is frankly laughable, the critics were describing an opera which seems so different to the Carmen that we know and, during the opera’s early life, changed their views so radically.

During the first six months it was played 48 times, but never to a full auditorium. Bizet died in 1875. By 1878, Carmen was a success in the Western world, apart from Paris. Galli-Marié last sang in Paris in 1890 for a gala performance of Carmen to raise money for a Bizet monument.

English National Opera's new production of Carmen directed by Calixto Bieuto, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth with Ruxandra Donose in the title role opens at the London Coliseum on Wednesday 21 November and performances continue till Sunday 9 December.

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