Critical reaction to Carmen in 1875

Georges Bizet’s Carmen premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875. The Opéra Comique was undergoing great change at the time Carmen came to be. Once known as the hub of witty, comic, or satirical works defined by the inclusion of spoken dialogue, it had grown more conservative and family-friendly:

By the 1850s the opéra comique tradition had lost much of its satirical nature and was considered “family entertainment” with rather rigid conventions of its own. In general, opéras comiques avoided the overblown spectacle of French grand opera (which cultivated elaborate scenery, massive crowd scenes, and dramatic spectacle, and were heroic and tragic), favored choral writing to ballets, and employed lighter voices in the leading roles. Its plots were highly sentimental, unambiguously moral in character, and invariably ended happily. [Chadwick Jenkins]

Camille du Locle, the Artistic Director of the Opéra Comique, knew he was pushing the limits of his theater’s conventions by inviting Bizet to adapt Prosper Mérimée‘s gritty, realistic, and sensual novella: he was in fact hoping to revamp the Comique with Carmen. However, critical reaction to the fierce Carmencita and the trail of sex and violence that follows her free spirit was perhaps more contemptuous than anyone expected. Here’s what they were saying about Carmen in 1875:

M. Bizet, as is known, belongs to that new sect that believes in vaporizing musical ideas instead of enclosing them within definite bounds…Such a way of composing must inevitably produce works that are confused. It is melody that is the design of music. If one takes that away, only educated noise is left…. Orchestration plays an important role in Bizet’s music. It is full of learned combinations, delicate embellishments, and rare and unexpected sonorities. But the excessive struggling of voices against instruments is one of the faults of the modern school. The role of Carmen is not a success for Mme Galli-Marié. She is trivial and brutal; she turns this feline girl into a cynical harlot. [Paul de Saint-Victor, in Le moniteur]

Sadly, what is dramatic in a novel is not always so in the theater. Certain types of character that are intriguing in a book are less appealing on the stage, where they take on a realistic nature that shocks even less timorous spirits…There is, nonetheless, huge talent in this musical score. The music follows the various twists of fortune of the drama with rare theatrical intelligence, and there are clever details of harmony and instrumentation in abundance. [Victorin Jonçières, in La liberté]

The stage [in general] is given over more and more to women of dubious morals. It is from this class that people like to recruit the heroines of our dramas, our comedies, and now even our comic operas. But once they have sunk to the sewers of society they have to do so again and again; it is from down there that they have to choose their models. … They think they always have to “improve” on what has gone before. Marion Delorme, Manon Lescaut, Marguerite Gautier, steps along this sorry path, are now past and gone … Carmen is the daughter [of these] in the most revolting sense of the word … the veritable prostitute of the gutter and the street-corner. [Achille de Lauzières, in La Patrie]

I won’t mince words. Your Carmen is a flop, a disaster! It will never play more than twenty times. The music goes on and on. It never stops. There’s not even time to applaud. That’s not music! And your play – – that’s not a play! A man meets a woman. He finds her pretty. That’s the first act. He loves her, she loves him. That’s the second act. She doesn’t love him anymore. That’s the third act. He kills her. That’s the fourth! And you call that a play? It’s a crime, do you hear me, a crime. [Jean Henri Dupin to his friend, the librettist Meilhac]

Bizet died just 3 months after the work premiered, only knowing these criticisms of his last great work. He did not know that it would swiftly go on to great success in Vienna in the fall of 1875, New York, London and St. Petersburgh in 1878, and finally Paris in 1883. Friedrich Nietzsche became perhaps the most vocal proponent of Carmen, writing:

This music seems to me to be perfect…This music is wicked, subtle, and fatalistic ; it remains popular at the same time…It builds, it organises, it completes; it is thus the antithesis to the polypus in music, “infinite melody.” Have more painful, tragic accents ever been heard on the stage? And how are they obtained? Without grimace! Without counterfeit coinage! Without the imposture of the grand style! Finally, this music takes the auditor for an intelligent being, even for a musician.

Many thanks to the New York City Opera Project / Columbia University for their expertly researched and highly accessible website on the history of Carmen.

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