The story of Carmen began almost two centuries ago and continues to enthrall and be adapted for new audiences. Prosper Mérimée based his 1845 novella, Carmen, on an 1824 Pushkin poem, titled “The Gypsies,” which he’d translated from Russian to French. Composer Georges Bizet and librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy used Mérimée’s novella as a basis for their opera, also titled Carmen. And since then over three dozen film adaptations have been made, Carmen is one of the most performed operas in the world, the ballet version has been performed over 5,000 times, and Bizet’s music, as I mentioned yesterday, is ubiquitous in advertising and movie soundtracks.

The story itself is the stuff of classic opera tragedy: temptation, love, betrayal, death. Set in Sevilla, Spain in the early nineteenth century, it centers around Carmen, a beautiful gypsy girl who works in a cigarette factory. Don José, an inexperienced corporal, meets and falls in love with her when he comes to arrest her for having stabbed one of her coworkers in the factory. Though he gives up his law-abiding life and his adoring fiance for her, Don José loses Carmen’s love after a while. When she falls instead for a famous bullfighter, Escamillo, Don José kills Carmen in a rage.

Last summer when I was in Madrid, I was thrilled to find that my hostel was around the corner from a theater putting on a flamenco version of Carmen–my favorite opera combined with my favorite dance form. Flamenco is a natural adaptation of the opera, as the dance form originated in the gypsy district of Sevilla. I had a huge grin on my face as the lights went down and Bizet’s Prelude came piping into the theater. But my grin began to fade: prerecorded music? And when the dancers were lit up on stage, trying to dance flamenco to Bizet’s rhythms (flamenco-inspired, perhaps, but thoroughly in the tradition of western classical music) I frowned. This show was a mess. After the Prelude ended, though, the music abruptly shut off, and a group of live flamenco guitarists began to play. And then the dancers knew what to do. I sat grinning through the rest of the show, even when the live guitarists had to make way for the famous prerecorded arias a few more times. It was a mongrel of a show, but beautiful nonetheless.

Following are three clips from very distinct versions of Carmen. I’ve added the clips in the chronological order of the opera itself, so that the first leads into the second and the second to the third, even though, as you’ll see, they are quite different.

The first clip is from a 2006 production of Carmen at Covent Garden, sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci. When the Sevillano men ask Carmen to love them near the beginning of Act 1, she responds with the Habanera:

After Carmen sings this ode to free love, she disappears inside the cigarette factory. Shortly thereafter she gets into a dispute with another girl. Carlos Saura’s 1983 flamenco film has an excellent scene of the knife fight:

Don José arrests Carmen for the attack, but she immediately begins to seduce him. Here’s Beyoncé in the role of seductress from the 2001 MTV Hip-Hopera, putting the moves on Mekhi Phifer:

Perhaps after two centuries of adaptation all these variations are mongrels, but the amount of innovation that goes into each one is exciting.

Advertisements