Here comes another indispensable OOG/ENO guide: Carmen (2013).
As is the case with many operatic works that are now standard repertoire, Carmen’s opening night was a failure, and Bizet endured a pummeling by the critics. The composer died three months later, overall unhappy and without any inkling of the opera’s future planetary success that lasts to this day. How the work came to be premiered at the Opéra-Comique, and all the politicking behind the scenes at this very French institution leading up to and after Carmen is documented in Lesley A. Wright’s fascinating chapter. Opéra-Comique, before the new young guard which was itching to burst in and which included Bizet, used to showcase conservative light comedies with a nuptial happy ending. Bizet’s work had the working classes and the lumpen, it had sex, murder, a woman with actual desires and various other breaches of respectability. Musically too, it was much more complex than the O-C audience and the Paris arts media would be accustomed to, and presented itself in a mainstream that looked at any complex harmonies as suspicious Wagnerization of the French national musical vernacular. (I am not making this up!) The O-C’s orchestra and the chorus found many parts “unperformable” due to their perceived difficulty.
I’ve also learned thanks to Wright who the soiristes were (the first impressions reporters who would write for tomorrow’s papers a play-by-play and the summary of the reactions from the audience; then the proper critics would come in later, the lundistes) and that there existed corrupt journalists you simply had to pay off in order to have a smooth opening night.
Richard Langham Smith’s chapter analyzes the musical score(s) hand in hand with the libretto(s). There is also an interesting sub-section on how the libretto relates to its base text, Mallarmé’s then-wildly popular novella Carmen. (In it, Carmen is married to an evil one-eyed man called Garcia, whom Don Jose also kills by the end, and there is no Micaela – for example.) Why was there a wave of Hispanophilia in France in that period and why are so many French creations marked by Andalusia — that’s another line of inquiry in this chapter. Langham Smith is very detailed on the differences and versions between the scores and librettos, the spoken dialogue vs recitatives, and what exactly was the inserted and abandoned Pantomime scene all about… The complete score included in the book, with its side English translation, is prepared and edited by Langham Smith. He notes that a production or a recording with the complete dialogue libretto, without any cuts, has actually never been made.
The remaining two chapters are George Hall’s performance history of Carmen and Gary Kahn’s rundown of the opera’s early (often unlikely) fans. Both contain a myriad things you probably never knew. (Tchaikovsky and Nietzsche both loved Carmen?! Sally Potter’s 2007 ENO Carmen with Alice Coote had not a word of dialogue left in?!)
There is also the usual thematic guide for the score, the selected discography, videography and bibliography, and a selection of posters, photos — we get to see the very first singing actress who made Carmen a massive success — and engravings — the Cigarreras with their children at the tobacco factory in Seville, for example.
An essential volume.