Beyond Carmen

Article by George Hall

“Bizet’s Carmen” is a phrase that trips lightly off the tongue. It brings together the name of a French composer with the title of his best known work – indeed one of the best known titles of all. Though these days La bohème receives more performances, year on year, Carmen continues to represent for the wider public – indeed the widest – the archetypal opera.

Georges Bizet died during the initial run of Carmen, which opened at the Théatre de l’Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3rd, 1875. Much mythology has grown up around this first production, including the supposed fact that it was a complete failure, and that this failure in some mysterious way caused the composer’s death. The reality, naturally, was a good deal more nuanced. Staying outside Paris in the suburb of Bougival in the aftermath of the stresses and strains of the period leading up to and including Carmen’s premiere, Bizet was already suffering from various serious and ongoing health problems when two successive heart attacks killed him early on the morning of June 3rd, 1875 at the age of just 36. The previous night Carmen had played for the 33rd time – already reaching a performance total he had not previously achieved; four months later a production in Vienna launched it on an international career that has never faltered.

Yet there was real disappointment for Bizet at the close of the first night. Despite the presence of many of the French capital’s leading musical and theatrical luminaries, the novelty of the score and the violence (and for some the immorality) of the plot had pushed the audience of the Opéra-Comique, as well as a handful of critics, well beyond their comfort-zones. Carmen had an uncertain start, and it was not until 1883, by which time Bizet had been dead for eight years, that Parisian audiences received the piece – already acclaimed as a masterpiece in St Petersburg, London, New York, Berlin, Naples and innumerable other centres – with open arms.

Paris was a city of theatres in Bizet’s day, and he was clearly predisposed to write for them as much by inclination as for the more practical reason that they represented the surest route to fame and fortune for French composers of his time. Three venues, in particular, offered golden opportunities. The most important was the Opéra, Paris’s grandest theatre and the home of large-scale spectacular creations admired throughout Europe for their intellectual seriousness as well as their high artistic ambition: works by Giacomo Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots, Le prophete, L’africaine) dominated the repertoire, alongside other classics by Fromental Halévy (La juive) and Gioachino Rossini (Guillaume Tell). French composers fought hard to secure a production on this most prestigious of stages, often in competition with foreigners like Donizetti, Verdi and even Wagner.

Almost as venerable as the Opéra, though purveying a lighter kind of entertainment, was the Opéra-Comique. The term ‘opéra-comique’ does not mean, as might be supposed, comic opera, but rather defined a form that invariably included (by statute, indeed) spoken dialogue. Many of the works written for the Opéra-Comique were nevertheless comic – the bulk of the innumerable productions of Daniel Auber, for instance – but serious subjects and even tragic endings were possible on its stage.

Less well established, though often highly imaginative in its commissions, was the Théatre Lyrique, which under the management of the former-singer-turned-impresario Léon Carvalho gave significant opportunities to talented composers unable to gain a look-in at the other two venues. (Gounod’s Faust and Roméo et Juliette started off at the Théatre Lyrique, as did Les troyens à Carthage, the only part of Berlioz’s epic to be staged during his lifetime.) Carvalho was a long-term supporter of Bizet’s – though curiously, when he took over at the Opéra-Comique in 1876, he showed little interest in Carmen, a work he apparently disliked.

In addition to these permanent subsidised institutions (or semi-permanent, in the case of the less well-funded Théatre Lyrique), smaller and often commercially run enterprises came and went, with Jacques Offenbach leading the field with his jovial operettas. It was Offenbach, in fact, who gave Bizet his first opportunity to produce a work for the Parisian stage.

Bizet came from a highly musical family, and his talents were so evident as a child that he was packed off to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine. Under the directorship of the tirelessly productive Auber, this institution was virtually a factory for the production of successful opera composers. Bizet eventually studied under Fromental Halévy, creator of the admired La juive and many other operas successful in their day; later on, he would marry Halévy’s daughter, Geneviève. While at the Conservatoire Bizet became an opera composer, writing the one-act La maison du docteur in 1855, when he was 17, for members of staff and his fellow students to perform; it survives with just piano accompaniment, which may be all that it was intended to have.

At the Conservatoire Bizet won prize after prize, including the most important of all for a composer – the Prix de Rome. Established in Napoleon’s time, it allowed the lucky winner to spend three years as a live-in postgraduate at the Villa Medici, stimulated by the company of other young French artists and imbibing the riches of Italian culture at their source.

Before he set off for Rome, however, Bizet had entered a competition run by Jacques Offenbach to discover new talent and flesh out the repertory of his own small-scale, off-boulevard theatre, the Bouffes-Parisiens, where his brilliant frivolities were already attracting positive attention. Out of 78 entrants, two youngsters setting the same one-act comic libretto Le docteur Miracle (based on Sheridan’s farce St Patrick’s Day) were adjudged joint winners – Bizet and Charles Lecocq, who would go on to enjoy a considerable career as a master of operetta – and their respective works were premiered in April 1857. The libretto was partly written by Ludovic Halévy – Geneviève’s cousin, joint-librettist of several of Offenbach’s most successful operettas and eventually co-librettist of Carmen. Bizet already displays his wit and vitality in this delightful score, which includes a mock-Rossinian quartet about cooking an omelette.

In Rome itself Bizet seems to have idled away a fair amount of time in congenial company, but he was still obliged to send back to Paris occasional evidence of his hard work. One major assignment was the composition of a mass. Cheekily, Bizet instead sent Don Procopio, a two-act opera buffa setting an Italian libretto; he seems to have got away with it, but the opera had to wait until 1906 for its first production. He returned to Paris in 1860, with the intention of building a career centred on the theatre. Despite hard work over the next 15 years, and his undoubted genius, there would be many false starts and a full-scale success would continue to elude him.

Things began well, however, with a commission for the one-act opera La guzla de l’émir from the Opéra-Comique, which was obliged, as a part return for its subsidy, to offer such opportunities to Prix de Rome winners. In fact after Bizet had submitted his score, the manager of the Théatre Lyrique (the ubiquitous Léon Carvalho, who ran various Parisian venues at different times) went one better and offered Bizet a full-length libretto. So he withdrew La guzla de l’émir, which has entirely disappeared; it’s likely that much of it went into its replacement, Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), which enjoyed a respectable though scarcely world-shattering run of 18 performances in 1863. Though Berlioz, writing his final review, praised it lavishly, the piece made little impression at the time; indeed it was only following the posthumous fame of Carmen that it was revived and finally became a success, despite being performed and published in an edition much revised by other hands that has only recently been replaced by an authentic one by Brad Cohen that returns to Bizet’s original score (see the next article by Matthew Waldren). With its vivid colour and melodic richness, and its unforgettable tenor/baritone duet, The Pearl Fishers has become Bizet’s second most successful opera, and a long way ahead of all the others.

The fate of La guzla – missing, presumed lost – is all too typical of that of Bizet’s stage-works. The surviving autograph score of Ivan IV (1862-5), about an abortive attempt to assassinate Ivan the Terrible, and conceived in the grandest grand-opéra manner, is frustratingly not quite complete in terms of orchestration. Even when a work was commissioned and finished a change of theatrical administration, or simply lack of funds, could prevent the production of a major score on which a composer might have spent many months. Ivan IV was accepted by the Théatre Lyrique, though repeated postponements caused Bizet to offer it instead to the Opéra, which turned it down. And that was that. Bizet stopped work and moved on, incorporating parts of the score into later works. Completed by Henri Busser, the opera was eventually premiered in Bordeaux in 1951, though more recently the British conductor Howard Williams prepared an alternative version which Chelsea Opera Group performed in London in 1987.

Bizet had rather more luck with his next commission, La jolie fille de Perth, a lively if episodic piece based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Fair Maid of Perth. History repeated itself, however, when it once again notched up 18 performances at the Opéra-Comique in 1867 and then promptly disappeared, only to be revived with more success after Bizet’s death; despite much delightful music (including a famous tenor serenade), the piece has never attained the repertory position of The Pearl Fishers.

According to one friend, it was following this setback that Bizet lost his high spirits and acquired a permanent air of anxiety. He nevertheless continued to explore and work on diverse projects. Also in 1867, at the Théatre Athénée, a four-act composite operetta called Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre was performed; Bizet contributed the first act, while his colleagues Delibes and the forgotten Emile Jonas and Isidore Edouard Legouix wrote the others. Once again the operetta is lost. Another operetta ascribed to Bizet by an early biographer, the one-act bouffonnerie musicale, Sol-si-ré-pif-pan, supposedly performed under a pseudonym in Paris in 1872, has vanished as well. Following the death of his father-in-law Halévy in 1862, Bizet eventually did the right thing by completing Halévy’s last opera, Noé (Noah), in 1868-9; the result was premiered in Karlsruhe in 1885, 10 years after Bizet himself had died.

Five frustrating years after La jolie fille de Perth, Bizet finally obtained another commission from a major theatre – the Opéra-Comique. The result was a small masterpiece – the one-act comedy Djamileh, about an oriental (?sex-)slave who causes her master to genuinely fall in love with her by appearing in disguise. It received just 11 performances in 1872, and despite a respectable showing at the same venue in subsequent decades it has never been widely taken up, suffering from a general prejudice against one-act operas that sees only half a dozen examples regularly performed; musically, Djamileh is a flawless little gem. The most positive consequence of its minor success, however, was that the Opéra-Comique’s management followed up with a commission for a full-length piece, allowing Bizet a free hand as to subject. To their dismay he chose and then insisted on Carmen. The rest, as they say, is history.

If he had written only Carmen, Bizet would still merit a position among the greatest as well as the most popular of opera composers. But it’s a surprising and depressing fact that much of his output survives only in fragmentary form. Eight operas exist in performable state, including the three youthful comedies, Djamileh and Ivan IV, but companies rarely look beyond Carmen and The Pearl Fishers. Meanwhile fragments, sketches and references to projects that eventually came to nothing testify to Bizet’s interest in or even substantial work on such subjects as Richardson’s 18th-century novel Clarissa, Grisélidis (subsequently set by Jules Massenet) and Don Rodrigue (alias Le Cid, also set by Massenet), as well as Vercingétorix – though these and a dozen other titles are fated to remain amongst opera’s intriguing might-have-beens.

George Hall writes widely on classical music and especially opera for such publications as The Guardian, BBC Music Magazine and The Stage