Dr. Evil

Creativity in Arts

February, year of the rooster

Lame but Sincere Review of Carmen

I saw an English-subtitled VHS tape version of Bizet's Carmen. It was a film

version from Triumph films. Placido Domingo as Don Jose, the Corporal, and

Julia Migenes-Johnson as Carmen. Dated 1984, though to my eyes, it looked as

old as the Eastwood knockoffs (or more politely, adaptations) of Kurosawa films.

The location could be the reason. The cassette case says this was filmed in

Andalusia. One of those so-called spaghetti westerns must have been filmed there.

The subtitles didn't appear complete at first, but I quickly figured out the

subtitles didn't bother to display repetition. This I figured out when the Corporal

shouted out "Carmen!" several times.

Visually, authenticity was at a premium. Again, they shot on location. I'm

not certain the city was actually Seville, but it could have been, and the prop

muskets looked like the "Brown Betties" that were standard European arms in the

1820s. Julia Migenes-Johnson actually looked Romany, and everyone else

appeared Spaniard to me.

The opening shot was of the toreador wearing down the bull. It was a

lengthy shot of the cape taunting el toro. The soundtrack for the scene was the

cheering crowd, which was feint during motions, then crashed at the conclusion of

every move. But once the sword was thrust through the jugular, the Toreador's

Song played. Cut to a procession moving through town.

The song and dance routine seemingly continued to daytime. Carmen seemed to

lead the way.

I forgot to take notes, but as I recall, Don Jose entered the town chatting

with an officer on duty. I recall they didn't salute, so the other must not have been

of commissioned rank, and in their discourse (which was spoken), it became

known to the Corporal that all the local girls Don Jose had inquired about worked

at the cigarette factory.

Carmen, who to my eyes looked too old for people to call her "Carmencita,"

seemed to segue into a solo act abruptly.

I must have missed something, because the next thing I knew, Carmen had made it

up to Don Jose's post, stood frozen, then tossed a white rose on his greatcoat. Her

worshipers laughed like dopey schoolgirls, and the Corporal felt scorned.

Don Jose, somehow smitten, pocketed the flower, and replied to the singing

of a messenger from home. I didn't catch her name, but the closest description on

the Opera Resources page was that of Michaela. They sang back and forth about

Don Jose's ill mother. He takes in the news, turns away, and mutters/sings a

blessing to who I'll call Michaela, thanking her for distracting him from a demon.

As a comedic effect, I guess, she doesn't hear his sung muttering, and he tells her

that he said nothing.

Don Jose's comrades in the Spanish Army draw him back to his soldierly

duties, which brings him back to the trouble he had been thankful to leave behind.

He finds social disorder at the cigarette factory, a skirmish between two of the

factory girls. They that a gypsy was involved, and naturally, their suspicion rested

on her. Don Jose, visibly vexed, gives frantic chase.

He sings "Where?" and factory girls sing back directions, while arguing

over who instigated the fight.

They find her in the back, where she appears to be shaving. They think she's

working- that least, I think I hear someone say she's working- but I don't see what

lifting a skirt up has to do with manufacturing cigarettes. Then again, she seems to

lift up her skirt for just about anything.

Maybe I'm putting this in the wrong order, but to my memory, Carmen slips

out and confronts/sings/dances at her rival/opponent, and does an abrupt hand

gesture that once again leaves the dopey schoolgirls giggling. I didn't catch what

she did, but it reminded me of the rose incident with the Corporal.

The soldiers break up the singing conflict, and the Officer entrusts

Don Jose to take charge of the prisoner he is smitten for.

The jail is where the musical performance picks up, I guess. In their big duet,

Carmencita begs to be released, promising the Corporal love (or rather, corporeal

love, I take it) if he released her from her bounds.

Don Jose remembers duty, honor... Mama! He's reticent. At first, it seems he won't

budge. His replies are spoken, which seems to mean (in the unwritten rules of

opera) they carry no emotional weight.

That emotive weight floods in when Carmen declares she could love an

officer... not a Captain... and cascades through the laundry list to the rank of Don

Jose. Although gullible enough to buy flood insurance in Kathmandu, his mental

defect isn't such that he doesn't know which corporal

she's seducing.

Their lips join, accompanied by a crescendo of stringed instruments. Only

then do the other inept soldiers of king and country march in to summon the


The Lieutenant, it turns out he's scripted to be a lieutenant, though his men

don't treat him that way, has Don Jose force-march her through the streets on foot,

while he sigh mounted a horse, taking a high center of gravity. Shortly, she

pulls him from the unsteady mount, I may have imagined the rim-shot that

coincided, and she ran to safety, applauded by the folks.

The scene ends. The video jumps ahead to one night, roughly one month

into the relative future. Carmen seems to be some sort of barmaid, doing a slutty

up-skirted dance on the tables. She sings what I take is supposed to be a Romany

folk song, while performing what I guess is a slutty Romany folk dance, for the

riffraff that migrates to a night time open-air Spanish dive.

The lyrics comment on the unusual sounds of die volkmuzik, clarifying that

the song is about the music being performed that second. I don't know if zithers

were actually used in the song, because I couldn't see one, couldn't hear one over

the crowd, and quite frankly, don't know what one sounds like.

As usual, the coming of the commanding officer is the vehicle used to suspend the

performance before the song grows stale.

The Lieutenant, who isn't treated quite like someone befitting his rank, breaks up

the fun, and lets everyone know to disperse. Carmen

encounters Don Jose with a smile. A whole month in prison on her account,

and he's still smitten.

Through song, Carmen walks off to her community of Gypsies, tells them

she's got a new guy, a soldier, and she'll stay behind with him. They exclaim in

musical verse that her romances are transient, that they don't believe. Through this

conversational song, it is spelled out that Carmen is easy, which is great

foreshadowing for the next scene, which naturally takes place in Carmen's


At this point, I have no doubt what I'm watching is European. The duet between

the tenor, Don Jose, and the soprano, Carmen, in this scene, takes some time,

enough time for that Lieutenant to break things up again; this time, with a trumpet.

"It's roll call!"

It is here that Carmen's singing/talking works in the theme of romantic love

versus duty, honor... Mama! Carmen, ever the card-carrying libertarian, insisted

Don Jose couldn't follow the rigid life of a soldier and love freely at the same

time. He tried singing the point across that he had duties, obligations, but her

beliefs were shaped by the opera's theme that their two worlds couldn't comport.

The arias don't end when he leaves, for the Lieutenant again shows up. It is

apparent that Spanish soldiers of the era didn't view Romany as something to

protect, for the Lieutenant clearly eyes Carmen when he sings/orders his corporal

to the barracks. Evidently, it is well known and accepted that Spanish soldiers

raped foreign women, or else (probably) Don Jose wouldn't have so vigorously

protected her.

Sabers drawn, they go through some motions, some big Romany males grab

the officer, tie him up, symphony plays strings, the camera cuts to a lot of closing

doors. Then we have one last distant shot of the lonely Lieutenant, contrasting the

domestic scenes from the shutting doors.

Next thing, the Romany are walking the borderland. It looks like the Kyber Pass.

Don Jose is with the band of migrants, but Carmen has since rejected him. The

deserter corporal pleads in repetition, and she scorns him all the

way. Meanwhile, the toreador and Michaela both stalk behind. Michaela's aria is

urgent, but more melodic than any of the other pieces I've heard.

Frasquita and Mercedes cut cards, singing subject matter that reminds me

of Walt Disney animated movies. They seem hopeful and sincere, contrasting

Carmen's malaise. She hears them chatter, gives it a try, even as she drearily

chants about the inevitability of the cards. Silence. She cuts the deck, tosses some

over. The horn section sting a solitary note. She sees death, as she suspected. She

then spells out the symbolism of the death card. The music is appropriately

somber. She walks in the night by a flickering campfire (death), lets the audience

know her death is coming, followed by her lover (Don Jose, or just about any dude

in Europe), then bemoaned the absolute authority of the mystical Gypsy playing

cards, probably manufactured by Bicycle Inc., then tried the cards again anyway.

Thus, she established knowledge that she was a player in a tragedy. It must have

worked, because I unwittingly switched to past tense.

Enter the Toreador on horseback, his famous motif playing him in. Don Jose

shoots from his encroached position, missing visibly in this production.

Escamillo, the toreador, takes it stoically, as does Don Jose. They aren't shaken by

the event, so they don't sing about it.

The toreador inquires about a girl he's smitten by. By the nature of Don Jose's

replies, I can see he suspects it's his own loose woman.

Sure enough, it's Carmencita, the one who had broken up with the corporal.

Escamillo, perceptive, knows that this "gypsy" is that corporal.

Another duel. The music reflects that Escamillo takes this lightly, just like his

other bloodsport, while Don Jose is out for blood. The bullfighter overtakes the

soldier. The sportsman lets him go, to be overtaken the next time. The girls ply

them apart, Escamillo invites all his friends to his big fight, and departs. It is clear

Carmen is amorous to the bullfighter.

Jealousy is raised in Don Jose, but Michaela steps in, pulling him back to what she

must represent: duty, honor, Mama.

Through this wrench thrown in, mystery is thrown into the final scene. How will

Don Jose, the castoff paramour, return to fulfill the tragic prophecy of the Bicycle

brand playing cards?

The final shooting is perfect. It's sunny, dusty, El Toreador's theme is playing, and

Frasquita and Mercedes are warning Carmencita that Don Jose will surely show

up on this by. The raging bull runs bleeding from the lancer's stylized assault.

Escamillo suits up and observes prayer, joins with his crew.

The girls see Don Jose, bearded, slinking in the shadows. He gestures Carmen to

come. She ignores her friends' council, feigning confidence that Don Jose won't

kill her. Upside, they coldly exchange recitatives, but passion escalates. The duet

is soon at such a passionate pitch that I know the tragic deed is only moments

away. She finally makes it clear she's rejected him for good, and he slashes with

the dagger. The whole symphony picks

in. The girls, town folk, and the soldiers rush in. Don Jose surrenders, telling them,

in spoken voice, that it was he that killed her.

So ends the opera.