It's hard to imagine, but George Bizet's Carmen was a spectacular failure when it was first presented in 1875. The composer died never knowing that his opera became a huge hit. "If he had lived another year, he would have read all these wonderful critical notices," said F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News.
In this edition of Opera in Brief, Driscoll explains the dynamic that exists between the three main characters: the fiery gypsy Carmen, her handsome toreador Escamillo, and Don Jose, the soldier who is completely obsessed with her. And below he names four memorable interpreters of the title character.
Carmen is based on a short story by Prosper Mérimée about a woman who is “far from a conventional prima donna,” said Driscoll. She is completely illiterate with "eyes like a wolf watching a bird." She is ruthless and violent with "no recognizable code of ethics."
Knowing that 19th century Paris wasn’t ready for a full blown public presentation of such a contentious female character, Bizet and his librettists made the story more palatable by softening Carmen a bit and making her slightly more accessible. Some go so far as to play her as a beautifully seductive woman; for others, she’s scrappy and tough as nails.
But, no matter which tack a singer takes, Carmen still doesn’t last more than four acts. Her wily ways get the best of her and Don José kills her in a jealous rage before the final curtain comes down.
F. Paul Driscoll names four memorable interpreters of the fiery gypsy:
1. Conchita Supervia
This Catalan mezzo-soprano was strikingly beautiful to look at with a “vibrato like the rattle of dice in a cup.” She made her professional debut when she was just a teenager and sang with an impressive clarity of intention. She traveled with her own “Carmen wardrobe” that was Paris couture and was always dressed to the nines.
2. Solange Michel
This woman was the most important Carmen in France after World War II. She sang the role more than 600 times. Her voice leaned towards the contralto range but was never heavy. It was not an "overtly seductive or a particularly glamorous sound, but it was extremely womanly.”
3. Marilyn Horne
This mezzo soprano had the uncanny ability to sing anything she wanted to. Her Carmen was a very tough, independent woman and very much in touch with Carmen’s anger. She gave you the feeling that she could survive anything. When she made her entrance at the end of the opera in the Met’s 1972 production, she looked fabulous in her white lace dress and mantilla designed especially for her by David Walker.
4. Risë Stevens
With beauty to rival the movie stars of her day, this American mezzo soprano was one of the biggest stars at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1940s and 50s. Rudolf Bing hired Tyrone Guthrie to stage a new production for her at the Met. She had incredible talent and sex appeal. And, she was fiercely smart. Carmen was her favorite role, and she owned it!
Weigh in: Who is your favorite Carmen? Tell us about your choice below.