Carmen, the Opera

What associations do you have with Carmen? Of course, the Spanish passion, languor, violence of feelings, female beauty and ability to captivate everyone who will meet on the way. Her image is so firmly established in our minds that the requirement for knowledge of the plot of the opera completely disappears.

Today “Carmen” is considered one of the most famous operas in the world, along with Verdi’s “La Traviata”, Rossini’s ” The Barber of Seville”, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and others. It’s hard to imagine that the premiere years, the 70s of XIX century, were extremely unfortunate for this opera. To such an extent that some experts associate Georges Bizet’s quick demise at the age of 37 with another creative failure. Then the opera caused confusion with its common people, stormy scenes, bloody finale and characters in general: Gypsies, smugglers, bullfighters, women of easy virtue — none of them inspired confidence and promoted the spread of good morals.

Created by Georges Bizet is a masterpiece, no doubt. The music is bright, full of life, Spanish flavor (although Bizet himself has never been in Spain!) and, in spite of its optimism, is dramatic. Delightfully complementing the tragedy of love Jose and Carmen, it is completely independent and does not need to be accompanied not only by translation, but also by words in French.

It is worth taking into account the strong differences of the libretto from the novel of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. The libretto authors Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy changed the scene: it moved to crowded streets and squares, spacious mountains. This was not enough, and they also rethought the images of the main characters: Jose became somewhat weak-willed, simple, dreaming of peaceful happiness; Carmen lost all qualities that degraded her (cunning, “thieves’ efficiency”) and, on the contrary, became more noble; Escamillo received a bright and saturated image; Michaela is endowed with even more gentle and affectionate features. Each character came out juicy and interesting for analysis, especially from the contemporary point of view, which we will not indulge in now — we will leave the reasoning and thoughts about the characters, their relationship and destiny. I will only note that Carmen in the interpretation of Georges Bizet seems to be an extremely up-to-date girl, even after almost two centuries since the events described (the action takes place in 1820).


For the second year in the Arkhangelsk Drama Theater, opera seasons have been held for the remarkable purpose of giving citizens the rare opportunity to perceive and understand the high dramatic art “live” without leaving the city. In early November, the State Opera and Ballet Theater of the Komi Republic showed its “Carmen” in French.

For some reason, it is believed that the opera is difficult to understand due to the characteristics of the vocals, even in the native language. The peculiarity of “Carmen” is that regardless of the opera language (there is “Carmen” even in Japanese) what is happening on the stage will remain understandable and close to the audience. Current technologies allow us to deepen the degree of perception of the plot: the screens show subtitles in the language of the audience. Unfortunately, in the case of the opera I saw, the subtitles turned out to be useless: the screen was high, you had to lift your head up; the text was so small that even in glasses from the amphitheater (10-13 rows) it was difficult to read the words; sometimes they even forgot to switch to the “next slide”.

I believe that the subtitles in the theater and cinema make life much easier for us and add a touch of procrastination — in exchange, we could learn a foreign language in order to catch the essence. In addition, the skill of listening — by the way, the most difficult to learn — will develop exponentially when listening to opera in the learning language. I was very pleased to realize that after five years from the start of learning French, two of which I do not do anything to raise the level, I understood the words of the parties “with a bang” and without subtitles.

My omission in my own education is that I am terrible at music. Because of this, I am not competent to evaluate the quality of the performance of the parts from this point of view as a professional, or a person from the near professional sphere. However, as a linguist-teacher, I caught one little thing that annoyed my ear — the pronunciation of performers. Even the invited Mikhail Makarov from the Mariinsky Theater (St. Petersburg), where, it would seem, the French language should be at the height, the pronunciation of the French “R” and some other typical French sounds was strongly Russified.

Another detail, the lack of attention to which is justified by its pettiness, but condemned by the importance of a cultural plan, are the costumes of the characters. White military uniforms more likely refer to Germany than to Spain, which had a blue uniform throughout the nineteenth century. And personally for me white uniform is associated exclusively with the sea. Inaccuracies in the selection of costumes also relate to the bullfighter, girls from the factory and Carmen herself. Because of the simplistic images, I felt Spanish sensuality and ardor to a less extent.

Subtitles, pronunciation, costumes — in fact, such trifles, when it comes to a rare opportunity to see the opera, especially when it is your first opera. To some extent, I am even proud that it was precisely “Carmen” and it was within the walls of my native drama theater. You eagerly absorb every action and word from the stage, you listen to live music, and then you stand standing with tears in your eyes hoping to repeat.

Photography: State Theater of Opera and Ballet of the Komi Republic

Sources in the Russian language:
  1. Сайт со статьями об опере, 2011.
  2. Лекции по музыкальной литературе.
Source in the French language:
  1. E. Valera “Uniformes de l’infanterie espagnole en 1853”
Sources in the Spanish language:
  1. La Caballeria En España, 2ª Parte, = Fuentes, Biblioteca Militar de Barcelona
  2. La Caballeria En España, 3ª Parte, = Fuentes, Biblioteca Militar de Barcelona
Source in the English language:
  1. The Vinkhuijzen Collectionof Military Uniforms

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