New York City Opera Project: Carmen

Carmen: The Librettists

Beginning in the late 1860s, the Opéra-Comique in Paris sought ways to reinvent itself. The tradition of opéra
Camille Du Locle
comique-the operatic genre performed at this theater-had once been vivacious, exploiting a variety of approaches to form, and teeming with satirical wit. By the middle of the 19th century, however, the genre had become stultified by reliance upon increasingly rigid conventions and trite, sentimental plots. The Opéra-Comique was considered "family theater": safe, predictable, boring. In an effort to pull the theater out of its morass, Camille Du Locle was appointed to serve as co-director with the archconservative Adophe de Leuven in 1869. Du Locle sought composers who could revitalize opéra comique, among them Georges Bizet.

Bizet's first commission from the Opéra-Comique produced Djamileh (1872), an Orientalist fantasy detailing a slave girl's attempts to win the love of the sultan. The opera failed with both the critics and the audience. However, it appealed to Du Locle's penchant for exoticism and Bizet was granted a second commission. Despite the criticisms, Bizet was confident, writing: "What gives me more satisfaction than the opinion of all these gentry is the absolute certainty of having found my path. I know what I am doing."

Henri Meilhac

Upon granting Bizet the commission and marshalling the efforts of librettists Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, de Leuven suggested three possible subjects. Bizet showed no interest in these and doggedly insisted on adapting Prosper Mérimée's novella, Carmen. The collaborators had little trouble in convincing Du Locle (although he would come to regret his complicity) but approached de Leuven with trepidation. When told of the plan, de Leuven reportedly exclaimed: "Carmen! The Carmen of Mérimée? Wasn't she murdered by her lover? . . . At the Opéra-Comique, the theater of families, of wedding parties? You would put the public to flight. No, no, impossible." Halévy promised that this would be a "softer, tamer Carmen," that they would make various concessions to convention, and that they would work to diffuse the impact of the murder. Finally de Leuven consented yet still pleaded, "But I pray you, try not to have her die." Although de Leuven agreed to allow the composition of the work, he never overcame his disgust with the plot and the resultant tension contributed to his resignation.

The librettists, Halévy and Meilhac, were a successful team, writing for vaudeville and operettas and they clearly regarded Carmen as a sideline. Following the tradition of opéra comique, Carmen in its original form combined spoken dialogue, written by Meilhac, with lyrical pieces, the verses of which were written by Halévy. Ernest Guiraud prepared the version of the opera familiar to most audiences, in which the spoken dialogue is replaced by recitative (the version the New York City Opera will perform), after Bizet's death.

Few documents from the period of collaboration survive thereby leaving scholars with a dearth of information regarding the opera's genesis. There are two reasons for the absence of such material. First, the collaborators were in close daily contact and had little need to communicate via letters. Second, the letters and diaries of Bizet and his family including Halévy, a cousin of Bizet's wife, were meticulously destroyed or defaced. In some cases, entire pages were cut out, and in other cases significant portions of text were blacked out. The reason behind this censorship remains shrouded in mystery but it most likely resulted from the instability of the composer's marriage at this time.

However, the end result of their efforts survives in the score of the opera. Comparing the opera's libretto to Mérimée's novella, we can readily assess the alterations imposed during the process of adaptation. Some of the changes were clearly an attempt to bring the plot closer to the expectations of the audience of an opéra comique. These include the minimizing of Carmen's criminal activities, demoting her from the leader of the bandits to merely a member, and the addition of Micaëla. The latter is modeled upon a stock character of opéra comique-pure, innocent and family-oriented-and serves as a foil to Carmen's carnality.

Other changes may owe their existence to the demands of stage adaptation and yet have a profound impact on our conception of the story. In the novella, we are introduced to Don José after he has joined the outlaws, whereas in the opera we are witness to his downfall. Furthermore, the narrator of the novella is eliminated, thus removing Mérimée's framing device. Carmen is made more immediate. Her character, and more importantly her voice, becomes the central focus of the work. Without the narrative voice and the distance it provides, Carmen, with all of her overcharged sexuality, becomes more palpable and more dangerous.

Chadwick Jenkins