When I was a little girl, nothing was more exciting than a trip to the theatre. Dressing up in my Sunday best, travelling across town with my parents, gazing up at the architecture of the theatre, mingling with the crowds, taking my seat and then… the lights, the music, the spectacle. Encore! To this day, I love the theatre, that place where all is sensational and romantic and breathtakingly dramatic.
I love plays. I love musicals. I love ballets. I really love operas. Carmen is one of the most well known in the world, of course, but it is genuinely one of my favourites also. In fact, it was one of my inspirations for my novel Indiscretion.
First, a little about the opera. The story is set in Seville and tells of a soldier, Don José, who falls in love with a gypsy, Carmen. She is so seductive that José leaves his sweetheart and deserts the army in order to be with her – only for Carmen to scorn him and declare her love for a toreador, Escamillo. In a jealous rage, as Escamillo conquers the arena, José stabs Carmen: one of the most powerful theatrical death scenes of all time.
Carmen was composed by Frenchman Georges Bizet back in the 1870s, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. It was not initially well received; the immorality and murder and sensuality were controversial for a stage show at the time, and Bizet did not live to see it be acclaimed. Only once it began to find audiences outside of Paris, where it was debuted, did the opera build a reputation, so that by the early 1900s people all over Europe were humming the ‘Toreador Song’.
For me, what stands out in Carmen is the passion and stark emotion in every line of dialogue and every verse of song. Carmen’s song is her weapon of seduction, from her habanera on how love is untameable…
… to her seguidilla about dancing with her lover. Carmen is the perfect tragic heroine: beautiful, alluring and yet cruel, as fatally flawed as naive Don José, driven mad by his possessive love for her so that he descends from honourable soldier to vagabond to, ultimately, murderer. Each of the characters so aptly characterises elements of the Spanish spirit; although the opera is in French, there is no escaping the very Spanish flavour when you watch it.
I have watched Carmen many times, on stage and on this DVD version, which stars Placido Domingo, Julia Migenes, Faith Esham and Ruggero Raimondi, and was filmed on location so has an amazing backdrop:
Watching Carmen and listening to the opera on CD were the perfect activities to get me in the mood for writing my novel Indiscretion. The book is set in Spain, in the same area as the story of Carmen takes place – indeed, Salvador and Alexandra spend a day in the city of Seville. Indiscretion also includes a swaggering toreador, and a stunning, seductive gypsy girl with a manipulative streak; these are the characters who would wreak tragedy on the hero and heroine and their blossoming love. There the similarity in setting and characterisation ends, but I hope that I have infused in Indiscretion something of the stirring passion and intrigue and edge-of-the-seat drama that is to be found in Carmen. I so love gripping, emotional stories!
If you have not seen Carmen, I recommend the DVD. But if you can see the opera live, so much the better. For those in the UK, Carmen will run from 19 October to 30 November of this year at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The Royal Opera promises to ‘capture the sultry heat of the Spanish sun, while ranks of soldiers, crowds of peasants, gypsies and bullfighters bring 19th-century Seville to life’. More details are available at http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/carmen-by-francesca-zambello.