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EXPLORING MUSIC: Brilliant Highlighting of Detail/ Georges Bizet

The MHS Review 396 Vol. 11, No. 18, 1988

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David M. Greene


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Everyone knows that Bizet's Carmen was essentially a failure when it was first produced at the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1875. Though it's hard to believe now, the music was too new, too different--not on­ly for the laymen in the audience, but even for such excellent musicians as Ernest Reyer who had Bizet's best interests at heart. More importantly, the story was shocking. It was one thing to see gypsies and peasants in operetta, where they were comic or cute or exotic; it was another, thought the bourgeois who came to the opera mostly to peddle their wares and their daughters, to see blatant sexual amorality and hot-blooded murder on the stage.

And then there was the usual operatic politics, which probably doomed the thing from the start. Bizet did not commit suicide, but, disheartened and suffering from angina aggravated by a persistent throat infection, he took a swim in the cold waters of the Seine which resulted in a rheumatic fever, several heart attacks, and his death a few days later. Shortly after­wards the opera was produced in Vienna and was acclaimed as a masterpiece. When Tchaikovsy saw the brief revival at the Comique in late 1875, he predicted that it would probably become the most popular of all operas.

So it has. And that popularity has been assured by its adoption in more popular forms and media. Rodgers and Hammers­tein gave us a "musical" in Carmen Jones (with minimal musical changes), and this was taken over by Hollywood. Peter Brook gave London and Broadway a Reader's Digest version for the tired businessman in his stripped-down and successful The Tragedy of Carmen. There have been two film versions in recent years ( one a flamen­co treatment), and I recall with nostalgic pleasure a black-and-white filming of Merimee 's original novella, starring Vivienne Romance and Jean Marais, from 40 years back. And, at greater or lesser remove from Bizet, there have been at least three ballet treatments within fairly recent memory.

I go into all this simply to remind us how well known this music is--a matter ger­mane to this recording. Bizet, of course, concocted no "Carmen Suite" as such, but the fact that he supplied each of his four acts with an orchestral prelude virtually assures us of at least one. By omitting vocal parts or assigning them to various in­struments, other hands have made available various other "hit" numbers. I assume that Sir Neville (as he now is) provided his own arrangements, since they are new to me, and since no one else is credited. His in­clusion of the brash and notorious "Toreador Song" is the one unusual feature of his suites.

If you're a worshiper of Bizet's Carmen you may have trouble with Sir Neville's view of the music. Or you may be fascinated. He reads it as if he never heard of the opera and had discovered the score of these selections in a wave-tossed bottle. In other words, he plays them as abstract music, with the result that tempi, dynamics, and other emphases may not be what you're used to. And you may wince at the supplanting of Carmen's voice with the oboe in the seguidilla or of Escamillo's with a trumpet in the toreador song. But this is not to say that Marriner's views are invalid or far out at sea, and his highlighting of detail (e.g. in the changing­-of-the-guard music) is brilliant.

The Arlesienne music, written for Daudet's play, does not depend for most of us on its theatrical context. Hence one is less likely to question Marriner's ideas. Whatever my ultimate conclusions about his interpretation, I suspect that I shall play this record many times, if only for the gorgeous sound. (Get that bass and get those whispering tambourines in the Gypsy Dance!)

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