Think Carmen; think feisty, sexy, hot-headed diva. A woman living on her emotions. She’s infamous as a femme fatale; her seductive power leading directly to the damnation of every man fool enough to believe she can belong to him. But she is also is a lot more. Her Spanishness, her cultural background, her Gypsy soul give her context; whilst modern girls appreciate her independence and self-assertiveness. Carmen’s story is vibrant and passionate and vivid and full of love. Like her contemporary literary heroines with similarly colourful lives (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina) her tale ends in tragedy. But she’s a simple, warm, lively character to adore, Shakespeare’s Juliet is pale and limpid in comparison.
A staple of most opera companies (and one of the most performed; over 500 times at the Royal Opera House), Carmen is also a ballet. The melody, harmony, and atmosphere of the music (it’s foot-tapping, mood-changing, strident and confident) is a big part of it’s enduring success. It conveys a sultry Southern Spain full of gypsies, soldiers and bullfights. For the depth of suffering and passion of the lead characters, the music has become renowned (Carmen’s seductive Habanera and Escamillo’s rousing Toreador Song in particular). But early audiences found it all too sensual, shocking and violent (it was first performed in Paris in 1875) and it was disliked by the critics. Sadly composer Georges Bizet died before knowing it would become a critical success. (Maybe this is is a bit of a leap but Alexander McQueen also used shock and violence in his early shows; he found huge success but took his own life knowing he couldn’t keep the shock up – McQueen and I).
The story in brief: Young soldier and village boy, Don José, is bewitched and immediately smitten when he meets the sensual and high-spirited Carmen (a gypsy girl from Seville). Utterly beguiled he ditches his fiancée and sacrifices everything to be with her. But Carmen is too free a spirit to be tied down and she starts to grow bored of him. Her head is soon turned by a strutting, handsome toreador, Escamillo and she falls in love with her new beau. Don José can’t take the blow; sexual jealousy consumes him. He tracks Carmen down to a bullring where Escamillo is fighting. But Carmen is sure, Don Jose is not for her. A broken man, he stabs her, killing his love and their former passion.
PHOTO CREDIT: ALASTAIR MUIR
The latest ROH production of Carmen also gave us Carlos Acosta’s swansong performance – both as Principal and Choreographer. Set against a big ol’ blood red moon (so it’s not all about the money when it comes to the best staging) there’s a bull with the most impressive horns, a simmering Marianela Nuñez in Agent Provocateur (still she is the most sunniest dancer), and Carlos (Don José) – all pain, angst and manliness. This is a world beating ballet company dancing at the top of their game, you can see it in every flex of sinew and bicep. Everyone entertains and delights. The orchestration pulsates, writhes, and strums. It’s a captivating production, I think. All the more so because Carlos is so liked (revered?) by his peers, the performance here is enveloped with admiration, and a desire to send him off on a career pinnacle. A most deserved standing ovation and hardly a dry eye in the house.
Today, Carmen lives quietly in our cultural hinterland. Is she a female figure of some regard? Perhaps but not revered by all; women still struggle to be sensual, sexual and liked. Who are our modern Carmen’s – Madonna? Cher? Christina Aguliera? Dita Von Teese? Is burlesque the only place we can find her now. We don’t seem to have anyone as brave as this centuries-old character to take on the mantle.
We all need to know a Carmen, she promises to brighten up the dullest day.