Georges Bizet was thirty-six years old when Carmen opened in Paris. He died three months later, believing that his last opera had failed completely. His early compositions showed originality and a great ability in orchestration, an example being the beautiful Symphony in C written at age seventeen, but it was at the end of his short life that he truly found his innovative force. The most successful opera composers in France at the time were Daniel-François Auber, Jacques Offenbach, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and some of their influence can be observed in Bizet’s early works. He was twenty-two when he received his first opera commission for Les Pécheurs de Perles. It came after spending three years in Italy, the result of winning the coveted Grand Prix de Rome.
Five years after marrying Geneviève Halévy, daughter of his former teacher, Bizet received the Carmen libretto, prepared by Ludovic Halévy (his cousin by marriage) and Henri Meilhac and based on the book by Prosper Mérimée. Bizet seemed extremely happy with the libretto submitted to him by the Opéra-Comique, but totally unprepared for the negative public reaction to his opera. Even though some of the most unsavory characters in Mérimée’s story (such as Carmen’s husband, García le Borgne) had been removed by the librettists, the subject and goings-on were still offensive to the bourgeois Parisians of the day. On the night of the première, the final curtain was greeted with complete silence. Bizet was devastated. A few months later he had a heart attack, followed by a second one the next day. He died at midnight, just as Carmen was ending its thirty-first performance at the Opéra-Comique.
Upon hearing it in Paris, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky announced that “in a few years Carmen will be the most popular opera in the world.” Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner heard the Vienna production, which had removed the original spoken dialogues between scenes and incorporated in its place the new recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud. The spoken conversations of the original version were the practice of the Opéra-Comique, but grand opera required musical continuity with sung recitatives. With the1875 Vienna production, just months after the disastrous Paris première, Carmen was on its way to fulfilling Tchaikovsky’s prediction. By 1878 Carmen was already being heard in London and New York (in Italian!). It was produced in several German opera houses before it was revived in Paris in 1883. The new Paris version was watered down by the head of the Opéra-Comique, making it less provocative and controversial to avoid offending his public. Meanwhile, in the rest of Europe, Friedrich Nietzsche and Otto von Bismarck were attending the opera dozens of times and writing about its wonders. As was the custom of the times, the opera was translated into many languages, including Japanese, Chinese, and Hebrew. Although Paris warmed up to it slowly, Carmen eventually it became a national symbol and by the time of Bizet’s centenary in 1938, Paris could boast having done over 2,000 performances of the opera. The most successful opera in history was finally embraced in its home territory.
It is assumed that William Shakespeare never went to Italy, and yet Romeo and Juliet makes you wonder. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was never in Turkey but Abduction from the Seraglio takes you right into the Topkapi Palace. Bizet never went to Spain—in fact, it seems he was never south of Bordeaux—but his portrayal of Spanish life and music, and his understanding of the gypsies there, is instinctive and real.
For many years several record companies have been suggesting that I record the orchestral music from Carmen in my own version. I never paid much attention to this idea, simply because I did not see a need for it. In fact, I did record the well-known orchestral suites some eighteen years ago in Australia for an American label which was trying to foster the Soundstream digital system, which at the time was considered a pioneer in digital recording. When BIS Records suggested I conduct a Bizet recording with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, the orchestral music from Carmen was proposed again with the understanding that I would produce a “new” version. At this point I decided to look once again at the existing suites and see what, if anything, was wrong with them. The answer was obvious: One of the suites was anonymous and both in the wrong order, lacking the masterful continuity of the original and thus having little to do with the story line. The orchestration of the vocal numbers reveals many problems. For example, the Toreador song, performed by a baritone, has been given to a trumpet, which is in the wrong register and has the wrong character. The Habanera, which must retain the vocal freedom and subtlety of the mezzo-soprano voice, is given to an entire violin section which is not quite as free as a single instrument. However, I postponed the project for some time. While I had visualized the entire production and chosen the orchestral fragments, I could not see a way to make a purely symphonic version of the final scene; it made no sense without the voices. Thus, my thesis of making a suite in the actual order of the drama would not work. Without an ending I could not see myself even starting the project and it was abandoned for awhile. With time, however, I began to accept the fact that I would have to compromise and make a suite that followed the order of the opera except for the final number, for which I chose the fiery gypsy dance that opens Act II.
This was a very different experience from making a symphonic synthesis of Leos Janácek’s The Makropulos Case, the most difficult of such assignments. This extraordinary opera has no orchestral segments and, as my friend Oliver Knussen quipped when he saw me struggling with it, “it is the most un-suitable of operas.” I was quite apprehensive when recording and releasing this orchestral version of the opera, and no one was more surprised than I when the orchestra in Brno, which knew the opera intimately, loved it and incorporated it into their repertoire.
Similar to my orchestrations of Edvard Grieg’s songs or George Gershwin’s Preludes, I decided to keep the Carmen pieces sounding as if Bizet had done them, staying as close as possible to the original. Thus, the orchestral interludes are left intact, except for crucial editorial markings to facilitate performance such as phrasings, balance indications for the brass, string bowings, etc. While adding several sections that didn’t appear in the existing two suites, I felt it necessary to drop others, such as Micaela’s aria, which I felt really needed the human voice. Before recording the piece in Barcelona, I performed it in concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, which gave me an opportunity to find out how it worked and if it required further changes. Before the recording, last-minute adjustments were still being made with the faithful assistance of the tireless former librarian of the RPO, my friend Terence Leahy.
At exactly the same time, I happened to read an editorial article in the magazine Opera, which questioned why no one had ever done a proper orchestral suite of Carmen, giving all the same reasons I have mentioned above and many others. I was surprised and delighted; the article appeared as the recording was taking place. Sometime earlier I had come across another article which derided the “Carmen industry” and all the arrangers that had made rhapsodies for solo instruments, various ballets, and opera derivations, etc. Obviously, the universal fascination with the opera was very much alive.
“What is a symphony?” asks American composer Ned Rorem. “Symphony is whatever you call it,” he says. “A symphony of Mahler is not the same as a symphony of Bach or Haydn.” Early on I decided not to call this version a suite so as not to confuse it with the existing two suites. The work is constructed in twelve “scenes” rather than twelve movements, which made more sense for segments taken from an opera.
The prelude and the orchestral interludes are perfect in their original form, and thus they were left intact and included in the right context of the drama. The Prelude had been truncated inexplicably in the existing orchestral suite, so I proudly reinstated the marvelous middle-section, and also the ending that leads straight into the opera. Three themes from the opera make up the Prelude. The march that serves as the background for the procession to the bull ring in the fourth act is followed by Escamillo’s coupletsfrom Act II and again by the opening march, thus giving the Prelude a neat A-B-A form. The coda is made up of the “fate” leitmotiv that reappears throughout the opera at crucial moments. This is one of the most concise curtain-raisers in opera. In a few minutes it establishes the mood and the drama. It has no ending as such; it concludes with the musical equivalent of a question-mark.
Shortly after the start of the first act, an off-stage bugle call announces the arrival of the new guards to replace the ones on duty. This crucial group includes Lieutenant Zuniga and Corporal José. This playful segment retains its charm even without the children’s chorus. The music seems to poke fun at the soldiers, treating them almost like toy soldiers.
The fate motive heard at the end of the Prelude announces Carmen’s appearance on stage. She notices José at once, but can’t get his attention, so she sings the lush Habanera to him, finally throwing a red flower at him. I had a special pleasure in working on the Habanera. Seemingly based on a song called “El Arreglito,” written by a Spanish-American, Sebastián Yradier, it had to undergo more than ten revisions before the première so that Bizet could satisfy the needs of the original Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié. My intuition was to use the alto saxophone for the melody, not only because the sax approximates the human voice so well, but also because Bizet was one of the first composers to use this then-novel instrument, not in Carmen but in previous works, most notably in L’Arlesienne.
After an incident during which some of the women in the cigarette factory accuse Carmen of starting the quarrel, Zuniga orders José to bind Carmen’s hands before she is formally detained, since Carmen refuses to answer questions and explain what has happened. José is assigned to guard her. Her constant chatter gets on his nerves, and he demands that she stop talking. Instead, she sings the provocative Seguidilla, trying to seduce José into setting her free. He stops her, but she persists. Eventually, he slowly succumbs to her and agrees to meet “by the wall of Seville” at a tavern frequented by smugglers where she often dances and drinks. She promises her love and he can’t resist. Seguidilla has some unusual writing for the flute, so the vocal melody has been given to the oboe. This scene leads straight into the short, final scene of the act, which for this orchestral version has been entitled Fugato.
Fugato is taken from the end of Act I. It uses the theme of the quarrel music, the crucial fight between the two sets of ladies in the cigarette factory, the scene that leads to Carmen’s arrest. This dramatic fugal entry (not quite an entire fugue), is interrupted by the Habanera motive, again given to the alto sax, followed by dissolving chords in a remarkable harmonic sequence. This hesitating music portrays the plotting Carmen waiting for the crucial moment to escape. José has been walking her towards the jail when she suddenly pushes him, causing him to fall while she runs away. This music is a powerful curtain closer, again based on the theme of the ladies’ quarrel.
The first interlude, which opens Act II and which Bizet calls Entr’acte, is a curiously simple motive, bare to the bone, with two bassoons performing the playful melody in unison to a stark string pizzicato accompaniment. In the opera, the orchestral interlude is followed by the rousing Gypsy Song at Lillas Pastia’s tavern. As explained above, I took a poetic license here and placed this intoxicating music at the end of the orchestral cycle.
I had a similar challenge with the song of the toreador as I had had with the Habanera. I picked the trombone to perform Escamillo’s tune. The register of the instrument made sense, and some of the middle passages were given to the French horns.
This is the orchestral Entr’acteto Act III, a poetic, pastoral movement for flute, harp, and beautiful string writing, setting the mood for the following sextet and chorus.
Andante cantabile is made up of the middle section of the card scene (trio, Act III), when Carmen describes her tragic premonition. Here again, Carmen is portrayed by the alto sax. I did not change a note, but repeated this short segment in order to make a substantial, separate musical statement with it. The non-operatic title was given to differentiate this fragment from the rest.
Interlude 3 (Entr’acte to Act IV) prepares the audience for the bullring scene between Carmen and Don José, and it is immediately followed by the wedding scene, which opens Act IV.
This scene was too musically attractive for me to leave it out, in spite of its brevity. The chorus parts are given to instruments which can hopefully be heard above the clamoring orchestra. It’s a marvelous little moment that often gets lost in the opera.
The Gypsy Dance is a marvel of Bizet’s mature writing for the orchestra and the stage. It provided a perfect conclusion to this orchestral version. In the opera, it is placed at the opening of Act II and entitled Gypsy song.
Notes by José Serebrier Copyright 2010