Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, based on the novel of the same title by Prosper Merimee, was a unique divergence from the traditionally romantic and sentimental opera being produced in Paris in the late nineteenth century. Naturalistic yet intensely colored with emotion, the work was original in its use of complex main characters that, rather than being royalty or upper class, came from all walks of life.
The characters’ representations as disreputable, seductive, and sordid are tempered with examples of their nobility, humanity, and heroism. No one exemplifies this darker side of humanity better than the titular character Carmen. An extremely complex and multifaceted character, she is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic, lovely and hateful, understandable and irrational. Her character varies from novel to opera, yet the mysterious woman consistently retains these internal contradictions.
Carmen is introduced in very different settings within the two texts, which frames the character differently for each work. In Bizet, she is heralded by a chorus of soldiers and cigarette girls, causing her to be noticeably at the center of attention. This ceremonious introduction emphasizes her mystical power over seemingly everyone she meets. Merimee takes another approach; Carmen is described solely through the eyes of two men, the narrator and Don Jose, which causes the reader to question the objectivity of her character.
Is the Carmen seen through the eyes of her admirers and lovers all there is to the gypsy? The narrator first spots her climbing the stairway from the river after she has been bathing in the quay among many other women. The bold, confident seductress of Bizet’s libretto is presented by Merimee as demure and even slightly naïve at first; however, the reader and narrator alike quickly learn that this is only the beginning of Carmen’s intricate act.
Carmen’s first aria, Habanera, serves as a symbolic autobiography for her public as she proclaims that “Love is a rebellious bird/ that no one can tame/ and it’s quite useless to call him/ if it suits him to refuse” (Act I No. 4). Carmen is quite obviously the personification of love, the rebellious bird who can be neither threatened nor held against its will. Merimee, however, sees Carmen as less of a delicate bird and more of a powerful animal.
The primary narrator emphasizes the gypsy’s inhuman or bestial qualities, seeing in her eyes a “wolfish glint” and “a sensual yet savage look that I have never seen since in any human countenance” (Merimee 17). The animalistic characterizations are everywhere; her hair had “blue glints in it like a crow’s wing” (17), she “swung her hips as she walked like a filly” (24) and “she clenched her teeth and rolled her eyes like a chameleon” (25).
While the Carmen of the novel may be more wild and instinctual than her operatic counterpart, both characters are consistently described as evil or devilish. Don Jose cries to Micaela in the opera that “Who knows into what demon’s clutches/ I was about to fall” (Act II No.6). Similarly, Merimee’s narrator defines her as a “witch”(16) and “sorceress”(18) while Don Jose confirms that she is a “veritable handmaid of Satan”(35).
This characterization adds to Carmen’s allure and seemingly supernatural appeal. Her character is far more exciting to the reader and audience because of these apparently uncontrollable dark forces than if she were merely an ordinary human being caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The more mystical she is, the more intriguing her character is, as the reader must reconcile the interest in her welfare with the knowledge that she is constantly aligned with Satan and witchcraft.
Carmen’s behavior varies significantly from novel to opera. In Merimee, she is a blatant seductress, openly contemptuous of her lovers, constantly scorning Don Jose, and willing to be the mistress of any man with enough worth robbing. Bizet presents her as less diabolical and more genuinely interested, if not actually in love, with Don Jose. Her reaction to her ultimately tragic fate also differs. Bizet’s Carmen envisions her fate in Act III: “I read it clearly… me first./ Then him… for both of us, Death!” but refuses to accept her own prophecy willingly. At the end of Act IV she pleads with Don Jose to spare her and fights against going with him before she finally is murdered at the hands of her lover.
She proclaims love for Escamillo, shouting “I love him!/ I love him, and in the face of death itself/ I would go on saying I love him!” (Act IV No. 26). The novel paints a much darker and disturbing picture. Carmen does not die defending her love for another, but rather blatantly states that “Yes, I love him, like you, for a moment, and less, I think, than I loved you. Now I love no one, and hate myself for having loved you” (61). Although the reader can ascertain that she is aware of her impending execution, Carmen meekly follows Don Jose into an isolated area to meet her fate.
When Don Jose threatens her with murder she only smiles and states that she always knew it was to happen this way. Merimee’s Carmen is true to her gypsy blood; she would rather die than be controlled by a man, even her rom, and essentially grants Don Jose permission to murder her. Bizet’s Don Jose is less calculated; he does not lead her into a “solitary gorge” while carrying one-eyed Garcia’s knife, but rather approaches her at the arena and succumbs to his overwhelming passion and rage.
Carmencita is one of the most fascinating, intricate, paradoxical characters ever to cross the operatic stage. Her pendulous emotions and radical actions made her suitable to one of the most vividly arousing and disturbing operas of all time. She represents a shift in heroines from pure, noble and innocent to more human, complicated and disreputable yet still admirable and understandable.
While the libretto of Bizet’s work might not reveal as many complexities as that of Merimee’s text, her poignant and vibrant vocals express this perfectly for the audience. Both stories leave the audience in shock, wondering if the lovely Carmen could have persisted, or if her passionate nature had made her destined to be a victim in a crime of the passion she so easily invoked.