GOSSIP AND REBELLION
ROBERT HUGILL writes about the history
of the first performance of Bizet's 'Carmen'
In 1873, shortly before the end of the first run of Bizet's opera Djamileh at the Opéra Comique, the theatre's directors, Camille du Locle and Adolphe de Leuven asked him for a new opera. They wanted a light-hearted, three-act opera to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, suppliers of librettos to Offenbach. No subject was specified so Bizet suggested Carmen, based on Prosper Mérimée's novel. This might seem a rather strange subject matter for a popular, family opera but the 19th century operatic world is littered with the corpses of operas made from sanitised librettos. The surprising thing is that the composer and librettists seem to have decided to stick closer to the novel, though Halévy had ideas about softening the plot by including a pure young girl, the character that became Micaela. And much else in the final opera is close to the Opéra Comique tradition, with its comic relief and local colour; even the subsidiary characters are familiar from the genre. Ultimately, Bizet would go far beyond the Opéra Comique model to create a high tension drama, but initially, a particular stumbling block was the tragic ending.
The first two singers considered for the title role, Zulma Bouffar and Marie Roze, both balked at the idea of being killed at the end. Bouffar had started life singing risqué songs before being discovered by Offenbach; she was probably never a serious consideration. Roze had had some success after portraying an English girl in an Auber opera. Great success in London led to her marriage to the impresario Henry Mapleson. Roze was entirely unhappy at the idea of being murdered. So du Locle approached Marie-Célestine-Laurence Galli-Marié and she was perfectly happy to consider the role though she had no knowledge of Mérimée's heroine. This seems odd as something about her evoked Spain for her contemporaries. In the 1860s the composer Victor Massé had even suggested to the playwright Sardou that they collaborate on an opera for her based on Mérimée's novel.
Copyright © 5 September 2006
Robert Hugill, London UK