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27 october 2018

Despite my fanaticism about reading the sources of operas I've seen, I had not until now read the source of perhaps the most popular, Georges Bizet's Carmen. This mainstay of the repertoire – a powerful portrait of a sexually-independent woman stalked by a violent man – is based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée. Carmen, the story, is not at all obscure or hard to get hold of. I just had to get up the initiative to check it out of my local library.

Mérimée's Carmen is told more obliquely than Bizet's (or rather his librettists Meilhac and Halévy's) Carmen. Mérimée frames the story elaborately, making the narrator (absent from the opera) a character in his own right. This framing device is akin to those in Barbey d'Aurevilly's L'ensorcelée and Lamartine's Graziella – both from 1852. All three start with a French traveler to a picturesque place getting a little too close to local adventures.

Mérimée's narrator, an amateur archeological enthusiast, is prowling around Spain trying to ascertain the venues of some Roman civil wars. He comes upon a highwayman named Don José. Unaware that he will become the staple of many a tenor's career, Don José befriends the amateur. Each saves the other from a sticky situation: the narrator warns José of impending arrest, and José delivers the narrator from the clutches of a thieving gypsy named Carmen. Later, the narrator comes upon Don José in a prison cell, awaiting execution, and the bandit tells him a story-within-a-story.

Don José tells of first meeting Carmen, a woman who behaves like those

chats qui ne viennent pas quand on les appelle et qui viennent quand on ne les appelle pas (628)

[cats who don't come when you call, and come when you don't].
It's stalking at first sight. José, till then a conscientious if somewhat doofusy soldier, soon neglects his duty, lets the brawling Carmen escape from custody, and eventually runs off with her to join a gang of gypsy contrabandiers.

So far, the interior story of the novella and that of the opera run in parallel, with a big exception. In Mérimée's story, there is no Micaela. We never see José capable of idealized love for another woman, let alone singing a duet with her about his mother back home. At one point, the narrator does say that Don José reminds him of Milton's Satan, dreaming of "l'exil qu'il avait encouru par une faute" (615): the exile his sin has entailed. But in Mérimée, we learn little about the Paradise this Satan has lost.

If I may be allowed a spoiler or two, the second half of Bizet's plot also parallels Mérimée's: Carmen falls in love with a bullfighter, and Don José kills her. The dialogue they exchange in their final encounter is close to the opera libretto. But the bullfighter is quite different. In Bizet he is Escamillo, a baritone with masculinity to spare. In Mérimée he is Lucas, not a matador, but a picador, and one who, unlike Escamillo, gets badly wounded by a bull late in the action.

Mérimée's José seems unimpressed by Lucas. The picador isn't even worth killing, he tells Carmen:

Je suis las de tuer tous tes amants; c'est toi que je tuerai. (657)

[I'm tired of killing your boyfriends; I'm going to kill you now.]
That murderousness is the driving energy of both novella and opera. Carmen wants to be free, specifically in a sexual sense. José doesn't want her to be free, and rather than acquiesce, he will kill her. She knows that, and she knows that there is no way to escape him.

Mérimée's Carmen is pitched somewhat differently from Bizet's. Mérimée is more interested in her Roma nature, which is distinct, whether from blood or culture; Bizet sees her as slightly more an individual subject and slightly more the eternal feminine. The effect is the same, a woman craving a freedom that a violent bully will not let her have. For a melodrama constructed by long-dead men, it is startlingly relevant to problems of domestic violence today.

Lots of women die at the end of operas. Consumption and general inanition are popular exits. Tosca takes the plunge. Madama Butterfly prefers cold steel. Marie, in Wozzeck, is stabbed by the title character, but Wozzeck is pretty clearly not in his right mind; he may be in the mind that capital and empire have pressed him into, but it's not a healthy one.

Don José is different. He gets one particular woman under his skin, and willfully stalks her despite being conscious of hundreds of better options. A gorgeous tenor voice should not distract us from the considerable horrors first imagined by Prosper Mérimée.

Mérimée, Prosper. Carmen. 1845. In Romans et nouvelles. Paris: Pliéiade [Gallimard], 1951.