Carmen by French composer Georges Bizet has become one of the most popular of all operas. The Greek National Opera were performing a new production at the Odeon of Herodes, a partially re-constructed Roman amphitheatre that sits at the foot of the Athens Acropoli, so the temptation was just too great.
We purchased tickets for unnumbered seats, queued early so as to get a good one, and as it was the last performance, the theatre, accommodating around 5000, was full. By 9.15 the atmosphere and spectacle stimulated the imagination. The sun had fully set, the orchestra was in place, the backdrop of the ancient walls was lit and the action was about to begin. To think that almost 2000 years earlier I could have been a citizen of Athina, sitting in the same place similarly awaiting the start of a dramatic production of the day. This idea is now a treasured memory.
Carmen on My Mind 1st AUGUST 2016
This weeks adventure was one of both the body and the mind. Although we are not in Greece as tourists but as missionaries, not to savour any of the attractions, particularly one that combines music and an ancient historical site, would be looked back upon as an opportunity sorely missed.
Odeon of Herodes
So much for the setting, what about the show?
I have to admit that I have read more about the plot since seeing the opera than I did before. This is a brief summary of it:
A group of gypsy smugglers are frustrated in their attempts to bring their contraband into the city by Don Jose, an incorruptible officer in the Civil Guard. In order to help her kinsmen, the sultry Carmen seduces him, persuading him to abandon his post and look the other way. When his infatuation leads him to kill a fellow guardsman in order to prevent her arrest, he becomes a wanted fugitive. The capricious, fickle Carmen resents his possessiveness and leaves him for a famous toreador in Seville. Obsessed and frustrated, a distraught Don Jose follows her to the bullring with tragic consequences.
A fuller summary can be found here:
The Odeon of Herodes is not a theatre that can accommodate multiple scene changes and backdrops so the director had to design a set that the theatre could accommodate. This place in Greece is also currently a centre for refugees swarming here from war torn Syria and North Africa. So it was not surprising that a steel cage and shipping containers were the main props on stage. The programme notes also highlighted the director’s approach:
The realistic action and the identity of the heroine and her friends, who live on the fringes of society and its organizing structures, pose a challenge to directors. In his new production for the Greek National Opera, the British director Stephen Langridge explains: “Bizet’s Andalusia is made up, a fiction, but it nonetheless reflects our world. Overwhelming poverty is a daily reality for many millions of people, and Carmen gives them a voice. The people in this made-up world live on the fringes of society, around its desperate edges. Boundaries and poverty, freedom and slavery. It would be hard to find more topical subjects. Carmen is a story about today.”
So this gives credibility to the set and his artistic approach. However, what is annoying is how Carmen is now looked upon as a hero while when this opera first came out back in late Victorian times, she was not. Her attitude towards love is clearly defined in her aria, the Habernara, one verse and chorus sums it up:
Love is a gypsy child;
he has never, ever, known the law.
If you love me not, then I love you;
and if I love you, you better watch out!
You better watch out!
She was out to seduce a moral, upright officer who was in the way of illegal smugglers. Of course there would be no story if the man simply resisted her charm. But the whole story is a tragedy, a story that typifies man’s fallen nature. The programme notes clearly spell out modern attitudes:
One of the most emblematic of all French operas, Carmen is as provocative today as when it was first performed 140 years ago. The gypsy heroine defends her freedom and her right to choose her lovers and not to be chosen by them. She poses a threat to all male-dominated societies and patriarchies which, shaken to their very foundations by her choices, have but one response: to demand her eradication. The task is undertaken by her lover, the ‘betrayed’ Don José. An unconventional plot expressed through the music of Georges Bizet which, though now incredibly popular, was equally unconventional at the time.
This is all nonsense. She was not out to defend her rights. Her motives were simple, to use her powers of seduction to corrupt and facilitate crime. She was also fickle and with only selfish opportunities that she saw in the celebrity, a famous Toreador. Don Jose was not out to ‘eradicate’ he was a jealous, obsessed man who was seduced into making one bad choice after another. He was teased, tormented, ridiculed and so he killed Carmen out of hate.
Well, so much for the plot. What has made Carmen so popular is not the story at all but the music, inspired by Spanish folk music and dance. This is where the show scores. All the famous arias and choruses sung to a full orchestra were glorious; especially remembering that the whole show was performed acoustically. No performers had radio microphones with their telltale bulges and the orchestra balanced perfectly with the singers.
However, what struck me and also my wife was who received the greatest applause. No, not Carmen or Don Jose or Escamillo the toreador, but Micaela, played by Anna Stylianaki.
Micaela is a peasant girl who Don Jose had left behind in his native village. She comes seeking Don Jose with a letter that is supposed to be from his mother, but was probably written by herself to make him feel guilty for leaving his mother behind. However, her quest is sincere and that sincerity is felt in the aria she sings which is a prayer. Was it the singer, the song or the audience, who were predominantly Greek Orthodox Christian, who felt the faith expressed in the words of that aria? Interestingly, all dialogue and the words of the songs were projected onto two screens in both Greek and English, the language of the opera of course being French.
On Youtube the recording of Micaela’s ‘Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante’ (I say that nothing frightens me) that is particularly applauded is this one by Anna Moffo.
So, in conclusion, I’m glad I went, I loved the experience but, the interpretation was not for me and musically I still love most my first experience of one song, from the Hollywood adaptation called Carmen Jones, Pearl Bailey singing ‘Beat out dat rhythm on a drum’ the drummer being the great jazz sideman, Max Roach. See what you think :-
Habernera performed by Sterre, simply perfect!