“Surtout, la chose enivrante, Oui! La Liberte! Above all, what’s intoxicating is, yes, liberty!“
In order to prepare for my role as Dancairo, the gypsy smuggler in Landmark Opera Company’s production of Bizet’s Carmen, I did a deep dive into the historical setting of this timeless opera. I’m not much of an opera guy. In fact, this is the very first opera I’ve ever performed. But I’ve had a deep relationship with Carmen since my toddling days. My dad would play it frequently, and I would stomp and dance all over the living room to it.
Carmen, based on the eponymous novella by Prosper Merimee, takes place in 1820 Seville. The Spanish empire was rapidly diminishing, due to infighting and Napoleon’s invasion in 1808. In 1812, the Spanish Parliament, or Cortes of Cadiz, was reassembled in an area that had wrested control from French imperialism. Inspired by the spirit of the 1789 French Revolution, the Cortes struggled with Spanish monarchists and ultimately seized power in 1820. Their rule was short-lived, as they were ousted by monarchists in 1823.
Before long, the revolutionary spirit would periodically return to France throughout the 19th Century, and new artistic trends emerged mainly in Paris by mid-Century. In the area of theatrical performance were two revolutionary trends: Vaudeville (a French term some derive from “voix de ville,” or “voice of the city,” but more likely derived from “vau de vire,” or the “Vau River valley“), a satirical series of sketches and musical numbers lambasting French nobility; and Opera Comique, a blend of musical numbers and spoken dialogue, often also satirizing the nobility.
In this milieu were more than a few Jewish artists. Georges Bizet’s maternal grandparents were Sephardic Jews, and he married the cousin of one of Carmen’s Librettists, Ludovic Halevy (who collaborated with Henri Meilhac, also Jewish). Halevy’s uncle, Fromental Halevy, became famous for his well received 1835 opera La Juive. Halevy was recruited by yet another Jewish composer and son of a cantor, Jacques Offenbach (most famous for Tales of Hoffman). Together with Meilhac, the trio would collaborate on several operas, Carmen being by far the most famous among them.
Carmen was not initially well received. In fact, most audiences and reviewers found scandalous its depiction of a less than virtuous protagonist in the title role, with nary a nobleman among the dramatis personae. Bizet himself would live to see only 33 performances, but the opera found new life outside of France, returned to France in 1883 to great acclaim, and served as the bridge to the late 19th Century Italian tradition of verismo, or realism, in the works of composers like Puccini (La Boheme, Tosca) and others.
One should not be surprised that Jews were at the center of this movement, or many other modern movements on both sides of the Atlantic. For Jews, liberty was, and remains, a life and death struggle, and the ash heap of history is laden with cautionary tales of what happens to us when liberty is attenuated. I thought of those Jews when I, along with the cast, blasted these words to end Act II: “Surtout, la chose enivrante, oui! La Liberte! Above all, what’s intoxicating is, yes! Liberty!”
Intoxicating, indeed. Four cups of wine attest to that. Shavua Tov.