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By January 1875, rehearsals were taking place almost daily. The chorus rebelled and said that two of the choruses were unperformable. Later on in life, Halévy would go on to say that the training of the chorus was one of the greatest difficulties that they had faced when staging the work. The chorus of the Opéra-Comique were accustomed to singing ensembles whilst stationary; Bizet's ideas of a more naturalistic presentation was completely foreign to them. Eventually, du Locle was forced to add extra voices to the ensemble, at Bizet's instigation. The orchestra was also complaining about the score, saying it was beyond them. But many of these problems were conquered thanks to a longer than usual rehearsal period.

Having written a libretto that remained relatively true to Mérimée's conception, the librettists then conducted a running battle with the singers in a vain attempt to water down the presentation of the opera. Meilhac and Halévy were used to pleasing their public and now they were worried about shocking the rather family-oriented audience at the Opéra-Comique. To us, it all seems rather harmless but in the context of the period, small incidents became important. Escamillo had to be stopped from patting the cheeks of the chorus girls. They wanted Galli-Marié to tone down her acting. But Galli-Marié believed in Carmen and refused to bow to demands.

Galli-Marié and Lhérie (Don José) were Bizet's strongest supporters. You can't help feeling that they relished the opportunities that Bizet gave them for performing characters rather more red-blooded than usual. So when du Locle suggested toning down the controversial ending, both singers threatened to resign, announcing that there could be no changes to their parts. This also meant that the Act Two duet stayed as Bizet intended, rather than breaking it up to facilitate applause.

But Bizet did make a remarkable number of changes. Quite how many of these were forced upon him has been debated ever since. What we do have is the piano vocal score that Bizet produced and corrected before his death. This was done independently of the Opéra-Comique and is the closest thing we have to a definitive document of the musical score. Bizet was a perfectionist; he is said to have rewritten the Habanera thirteen times. He willingly made changes at the request of Galli-Marié and Lherie.

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Copyright © 5 September 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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Classical Music Programme Notes for concerts and recordings, by Malcolm Miller