When Prosper Mérimée wrote his short story in 1845 it was considered shocking and scandalous. Carmen was a gypsy and a prostitute. Don José a murderer and brigand, the setting rough and dangerous Spanish terrain, the culture seemingly so different from the author’s sophisticated France. There was no Micaela in this story to temper José’s wild nature and Carmen had other lovers as well as the bullfighter Escamillo. From its first form to this new dance version the content has been adapted and altered but the main thrust of the original gas been retained through them all with the anti-heroine at the centre. She is a predatory man-eater, with loose morals and a large sexual appetite, living life on her own terms, selfish and uncaring. But she is also full of courage, a free spirit, realistic and unromantic. She faces death with the same freedom: it’s going to happen anyway and if it’s to be now, well let it come. I’ll be ready. She also has a strong sense of destiny and the story is threaded through with the theme of fate.
Different versions of Carmen
In the different versions that have appeared, Carmen has always retained her self-sufficiency and desire to be free to love whoever she wants and for how long. When Micaela comes into the opera she provides a natural foil and contrast to Carmen. This in turn also brings out more of José’s love for his mother along with his feelings for Micaela. Carmen Jones, the film and musical play, transfers the story from Seville to America during the Second World War, the cigarette factory to a parachute factory and the bullfighter to a champion heavyweight prizefighter. Peter Brook’s opera version changes the story even further and the fight at the factory becomes one between Carmen and Micaela. He also cuts out the chorus, puts the small orchestra on the stage and kills the bullfighter. Dance versions of Carmen have also given us various different treatments, exploring the themes in an abstract way, set in a bullring, to the stylishly sexy Carmen of Zizi Jeamnaire and Roland Petit, and a rehearsal setting where the director, also playing José, falls in love with the dancer playing Carmen who treats him in life as she does in art. The young composer, Georges Bizet, imitated the original story too with his own experiences with prostitutes. The opera itself changed from being an Opéra Comique to Grand Opéra with additional recitative after the composer’s early death. So Carmen is a constantly changing mixture of true love, smuggling, sex, bullfighting and murder all reflected in the music. This new ballet continues with changes of its own by updating it to now and making the bullfighter Escamillo a rock star, as a representation of modern music culture, Carmen is attracted to his status and sexual charisma, money, clothes, drugs and power. But it is still the story of Carmen which first captured the imagination over a hundred and fifty years ago. We feel for the characters and understand the pull between desire and duty, the freedom of love and the demands it makes of us. It is very rarely possible to have your cake and eat is as Carmen and possibly the majority of us would like. Perhaps this is why we are still so interested in her: maybe this time she’ll make it work.