Monday 11 May 2020

'I have my habits, my fixations if you like ... without them I can't get any of my effects right': the first Carmen, exploring the performance of Célestine Galli-Marié

Célestine Galli-Marié as Bizet's Carmen (Photo Nadar)
Célestine Galli-Marié as Bizet's Carmen (Photo Nadar)
What should Carmen sound like?

This is a question that has long fascinated me; as Bizet's opera was taken over by grand opera mezzo-sopranos (and sopranos) during the early 20th century was something lost in terms of its original performance tradition? What, in fact, do we know about the performance of the first Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié, who sang the role from 1875 to 1890?

There is no recording of Galli-Marié in the role, if you want an early French mezzo-soprano singing it then you have to jump to Emma Calvé, 20 years Galli-Marié's junior and a rather grander singer (Calvé work at the Paris Opera, Galli-Marié at the Opéra-Comique). You can catch her interpretation of the Seguidille on YouTube (recorded in 1902, with piano accompaniment).

Bizet's Carmen was written for the Opéra-Comique, a company which had a tradition of performing operas with spoken dialogue, both comic and serious. It staged first performances of such important French works as Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust (1846), and Thomas' Mignon (1866), and would give the posthumous premiere of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann in 1881. By the 20th century it would even premiere Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). But though opéra comique had never been a completely comic genre, the Opéra-Comique in mid- to late 19th century implied a certain sort of style as its audience was mainly middle-class. And the repertoire included a large number of old and established classics (one of Bizet's problems in getting a new work performed there was that with so many popular revivals there just wasn't room for anything new).

The general opinion seems to have been that Prosper Mérimée's novel, on which Carmen was based, was too obscene to be staged and with characters of an antipathetic nature. And then, Galli-Marié's performance in the title role of the opera was described by one critic as 'a very incarnation of vice' with 'something licentious even in the tone of her voice'.

Despite the unsatisfactory premiere on 3 March 1875 [see my article about the premiere] and the distinctly mixed reaction to the opera, the initial production ran to a total of 48 performances with the final one on 15 February 1876. The work would not be performed in Paris again until 1883, but in the meantime it travelled Europe, becoming a fixture at such theatres as La Monnaie in Brussels, and often Galli-Marié was involved in these performances.

Shortly before he died (on the day of the 33rd performance of the opera at the Opéra-Comique), Bizet had signed a contract to perform Carmen at Vienna Court Opera. This would entail replacing spoken dialogue by recitative, thus Carmen had always been going to have a dual life as an opéra comique and as a grand opera. This was something which happened to Ambroise Thomas' opéra comique Mignon which premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1866 with Galli-Marié in the title role. In 1870, Thomas adapted the work for London where it was sung in Italian (!) with recitative rather than dialogue, and it was in this version that Mignon conquered non-French speaking countries, notably the USA. It is only since the Wexford Festival's 1986 production of the original opéra comique version of Mignon that the balance was restored.

After the 1883 performances at the Opéra-Comique, Carmen was always presented there in the version with spoken dialogue.  We can get glimpses of this tradition in two recordings, both with forces from the Opéra-Comique. That from 1950 with André Cluytens conducting with Solange Michel and Raul Jobin, is the last gasp of a dying tradition. Yet the singers are all Francophone and the performance very much a company affair, and this remains one my go-to recordings when I want to listen to Carmen. A more important historical document is the recording of Carmen from 1911 (originally on 54 sides of 78rpm discs). Here we have Marguerite Mérentié and Augustarello Affre conducted by François Ruhlmann; plenty of dialogue, voices which are characterful rather than great and the voices often lightly inflected in a manner we associate with classical French light comedy [you can hear excerpts from this recording on YouTube]. So whilst we can never re-create that first performance of Carmen, we can get an idea of the tradition which it created.

And what did Célestine Galli-Marié sound like?

Célestine Galli-Marié in a travesty role
Célestine Galli-Marié in a travesty role
Her relationship with Bizet is full of colourful incident, with the events leading up to the premiere rather inclined to a degree of myth-making (her asking Bizet to re-write Carmen's Habanera 13 times!). Yet she undoubtedly supported Bizet and was responsible for the conception of the role which stayed closer to the original novel than was perhaps suitable for the family audience at the Opera Comique. And she seems to have been central to the foreign performances of the work from 1875 to 1883, before her triumphant return to Paris in the role.

She came from a musical dynasty, her father, aunts and sisters being singers. But this wasn't a grand dynasty, though her father had been the Tonio in the first performances of Donizetti's La fille du regiment at the Opéra-Comique in 1840 (and was reportedly frequently off pitch), her sisters sang not only in operetta but in cafés concerts (i.e. were cabaret singers). So there are elements of low-art/low-genre to Galli-Marié's theatrical make-up. Anecdotes exist for the way the family made lively interventions in costuming, staging and opera production, and from the first Galli-Marié herself was known for such activities. At the age of 22, early in her first year at the Opéra-Comique, she wrote to the director suggesting a revival of Pergolesi's La serva padrona, and for her creation of the travesty role of Vendredi in Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe, Galli-Marié designed her own costume (made of scraps of cloth, it was judged too simple and never used). So some of the theatricality and theatrical business in that original Carmen, of which legends have been spun, probably arose because of Galli-Marié's way of performing. She remarked about her way of performing 'I have my habits, my fixations if you like [when it comes to staging] ... without [them] I can't get any of my [other] effects right'.

And whilst Galli-Marié did sing some grander mezzo-soprano roles including Leonor in Donizetti's La Favorite, which had been written for the 1840s star Rosine Stolz, and Fides in Meyerbeer's Le Prophete, which had originally been written for Pauline Viardot, Galli-Marié also sang the more soubrette type roles, including a significant number of trouser roles. In fact, both she and some of her sisters seem to have excelled at these type of roles. Galli-Marié not only created Vendredi in Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe (1867), but the title role in Offenbach's Fantasio (1872) and a number of others in operas hardly known today including Maillart's Lara (1864), and Paladilhe's Le Passant. Some of these, like Thomas' Mignon, involved not so much a male role as a female character disguised as a man. Whilst there was very much an element of 'leg show' in these travesty roles, as Sarah Bernhardt had shown when performing the title role in Hamlet, there was also a great deal of scope for histrionic talent too.

And when we read about Galli-Marié's performances as Carmen, we start to get a strong sense of her making an impact not so much via her voice as via her histrionic talents. Travesty performers needed an ease and confidence in the use of their bodies, and Galli-Marié seems to have brought those skills to her Carmen. Karen Henson in her chapter on Galli-Marié in her book Opera Acts (from which I have heavily drawn for this article), suggests that much of the famous re-writing of the Habanera might have arisen so that Galli-Marié could make best use of her histrionic talents in the song, to create as vivid and strong impression as possible. Galli-Marié does not seem to have produced a beautiful or powerful sound, but was able to colour and nuance her voice expressively. In the 1860s and 1870s, she was repeatedly described as vocally limited, but made up for this in agility and nuance. She was definitely not one of the powerful, rich and deep-voiced mezzo-sopranos that we associate with Carmen today.

In the end we cannot know what Célestine Galli-Marié's performance of Carmen was like, but it certainly seems that she was probably vocally lighter than we might expect and much of the striking effect of her in character came from the physicality of her performance as much as her vocal contributions.

Further reading:
  • Karen Henson - Opera Acts: Singers and performance in the Late Nineteenth Century - Cambridge University Press (2015)
  • Winton Dean - Bizet (The Master Musicians series) - Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd (1975)
  • Winton Dean - The True Carmen - in Essays on Opera - Clarendon Press, Oxford (1990)

Further listening:
  • Bizet: Carmen - Solange Michel, Raoul Jobin, Martha Angelici, Michel Dens, Chorus and orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, Andre Clutens - Naxos (Recorded 1950) - Available from
  • Bizet: Carmen - Marguerite Mérentié, Agustarello Affre, Aline Vallandri, Henri Albers, Chorus and orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, François Ruhlmann - Malibran (Recorded 1911)
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