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Musical Highlight: Carmen's finale

How Bizet ratchets up the tension in one of opera's most thrilling endings.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

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.

Carmen runs from 16 December 2013-9 January 2014. A limited number of tickets are still available, and returns may become available with day tickets available on the day of performance.

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.

This article has 4 comments

  1. Dr. Britta A. Moeser responded on 28 November 2013 at 3:26pm Reply

    Rachel, beautifully written comment on Carmen. Still, I think, Carmen is somehow misogynist and there is too much understanding for José - because of the tenor charisma. To me he has no right to kill her in the end. His bad choices are not hers. And the last act is usually not staged tense enough. I miss the consequences for José: he is garotted in the story. Male directors leave this image out of the staging. I would put it in to show he has to pay his evil deed.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 28 November 2013 at 4:09pm

      Hi Britta,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree – Bizet's attitudes (and Mérimée's as well, I would say) towards both Carmen and Don José are highly ambiguous. It's part of what makes Carmen so interesting to revisit and see in different stagings. Francesca Zambello's production (which The Royal Opera is performing) goes some way to addressing your final point, referencing Mérimée's framing device by showing us the imprisoned Don José in the overture. It's well worth a look if you have the opportunity.

  2. michael handelman responded on 12 December 2013 at 11:23pm Reply

    There is a "Carmen" when it's Carmen who kills Don Jose at the end - much more in keeping with the Spanish temperament!

  3. Gorm Gustav Graae responded on 15 December 2013 at 8:48pm Reply

    I disagree with you in your complaints about Carmen.
    Drama, especially the tragedy, is not made up of what is right and wrong and should not be judged by epochal moral standards. Tragedy always takes the extreme course. But it mirrors what’s going on in everybody’s life. Just about any man has—to some extent and at some time—eventually ‘killed’ his own beloved Carmen, or at least her spontaneous feeling of love for him. And just about any woman has cried out her demand to be free of the cravings of her (jealous and controlling) man, and derided him as either disgusting or a beast. I don’t think it is better today than it was in Mérimée’s and Bizet’s time. There’s no better understanding for Josés killing than for Carmen's esay-love-easy-leave way of loving. The latter is even the ‘moral’ standard of today, also for women, since it is compatible with the general ideal of being free to seek ones (sexual) happiness. No one is to be reproached for doing so in our day: we understand Carmen. Bizet and his librettist let the tragedy play it all the way without any moral value standard. That’s what makes up a work of art, to be free of epochal bonds, or at least, only to reveal them. So much for the psychological dimension.
    To take the naturalist view, Carmen displays the asymmetri of the sexes. A woman is playing off to find the best man (gene-pool) to mate with, and to catch a man, who may be incited to commit himself to provide for her offspring. He on his side has made displays and taken actions, that may have placed him in great risk, to win her, it is a game of energy investments. He wants his woman to be meak and soft to him, controllable to a certain extent, so that he can be sure the offspring is his. She may be meak and soft to him to keep him, even if she may collect genes from some other male, unsuitable to bond with, impossible to keep. She needs to be able to cheat a man to provide for her offspring even if they are not all his. She knows that they are all hers. Women have hidden ovulation bay nature, by natural selection.
    This asymmetri is a natural tragedy or a human condition to sexually coupled life. They did not know about it in Bizets’ day, allthough they felt hints. But we know. To them it was fate versus moral standards in Human Society. To us it is nature versus moral negotiations between individuals. A well-known answer to this tragic condition, is to deny it as a “naturalist reductionist” view, and retain a morally based claim from the point of women's side in the gender conflict, the cultural show-down. But it cannot remedy the gap between the pristine (natural) differences of (unconscious) sexual strategies. The sexual asymmetry is still here, even if we seek freedom in love, freedom in sexual relations for both (or all) genders. The opera Carmen is a tragedy of extremes, a work of art, in which we can mirror our own experiences, not directly but through layers of interpretations.

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