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
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
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.