Musical Highlight: Carmen's finale
How Bizet ratchets up the tension in one of opera's most thrilling endings.
28 November 2013 at 12.57pm | 4 Comments
What’s made Carmen one of the most popular operas of all time is its unbeatable combination of glorious melody and gripping drama. The tragic, almost unbearable finale – in which the despairing Don José takes possession of Carmen in the only way he can – is perhaps the finest example of Bizet’s unerring instinct for operatic drama.
Don José has sacrificed everything for Carmen. He has abandoned his livelihood, his fiancée, his dying mother. He has made himself an outlaw. And he feels he’s due something in return. But from her sensuous Act I Habanera to her fiery Act III argument with Don José, Carmen has declared that what love means to her is the freedom to choose. She used to love Don José, and now she loves the toreador Escamillo. She doesn’t owe Don José anything – she can’t.
There are three main themes in the final act and they all come from the overture at the beginning of the opera – Bizet has prepared us for the end right the way from the beginning. Musically he tightens the structure of this final act; it’s the only one that’s through-composed, lacking the dialogue that punctuates the rest of the opera. And dramatically the seeds have been sown: Carmen’s Habanera; Don José’s infatuated Act II Flower Song; in Act III, Carmen reading her death in the cards. There’s tragedy coming, and there’s no escaping it.
The scene is a square in Seville, outside the bullring. Theme number one strikes up: a lively march for the townspeople. Then comes the next major theme – the Toreador Song, here in an ecstatic rendition as the whole chorus cheers the arrival of Escamillo, with Carmen on his arm. There’s near-hysterical excitement as the people prepare for the bullfight. ‘Celui qui vient terminer tout, Qui paraît à la fin du drame Et que frappe le dernier coup!’ (‘It is he who comes to end everything, who appears at the end of the drama and who strikes the final blow!’).
Carmen and Escamillo sing a simple, short love duet. Escamillo leaves to prepare, while Carmen’s friends whisper warnings that Don José has been seen in the city. But the townspeople’s excited march strikes up again, whisking everyone offstage. Carmen is left alone – but a sickening descending chromatic line undercuts the departing revellers, and we can tell that Don José is near.
Those chromatic murmurings finally gather into a full statement of the Fate theme as Don José staggers on stage. This is the last of the great melodies from the overture, and the shortest. It’s the only one of the opera’s main melodies never sung – as though the tragedy of Carmen and Don José is greater than either of them.
The Fate theme seethes through the ensuing wretched, urgent dialogue between Don José and Carmen. In nervous syncopation José implores, pleads, demands. Carmen, defiant in the face of danger, declares ‘Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra’ (‘Free she was born and free she will die’).
Now comes Bizet’s most brilliant coup de grace. As Don José pleads with Carmen – first lyrically, then with increasing anguish against Carmen’s cold refusal – the people’s march bursts in from offstage (at 5:27 above). The crowd urges Escamillo onto the kill, in horrifying counterpoint to the events onstage. The effect is unbearable, as maddening for us as it is for José. He tries to continue, but the interruptions keep coming, drowning him out. Finally the crowd declare Escamillo’s victory. As they launch into the Toreador theme, Don José murders Carmen and the Fate theme brutally writhes beneath in an astonishing juxtaposition. The opera ends on an over-bearing unison note from the orchestra, in one of the most devastating endings ever written.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Dr and Mrs Michael West, Yvonne and Bjarne Rieber and the Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.