Carmen’s modern timelessness

The original work that tells of the gypsy Carmen and her tragic love story with a soldier and a bullfighter was written in 1845, in a relatively short book by Prosper Mérimée. I read the book, but like the world, I got to know Carmen first through the unforgettable music of Georges Bizet. The story is inspired by real events, which the French writer heard on a trip to Spain in 1830, following the narrative that the Countess of Montijo passed on to him. Fascinated by the strong female personality who embraced freedom even in the face of death, he is still popular two centuries later.

The book is far better than any adaptation of the work yet, told in the first person when Merimée supposedly meets a fugitive and tormented Don José. What is beautiful about the work – and what makes it so modern – is that no woman in the 19th century had the firmness and boldness of Carmen, who became a reference for feminism. Of course, in the book, she is the anti-heroine, or even the villain, an irresponsible and seductive woman, who “deflects” the honest man to the path of crime only to abandon him later for another more powerful man. Unsurprisingly, the toxic and abusive relationship between Carmen and José ends in femicide. At least in the book, the murderer repents, surrenders, and pays for his crime, being executed. In general, following the example of the opera, the story ends with the gypsy woman dead in the arms of a tearful Don José.

The opera premiered 30 years after the book, but even in 1875, it was considered “scandalous”, “vulgar” and “despicable” for highlighting “immoral” women who smoked on stage, as well as violence and murder. It took another decade to gain acclaim and become the success it is today, as one of the most famous and frequently performed works in the world. The librettists’ choice was to focus the story more on the tragic love relationship between the gypsy and the soldier, changing some characters’ names and even relationships.

Carmen, with her gypsy and Spanish culture, was an obvious content for ballet, that is, so we think today, but precisely her realism took her away from the universe of swans and fairies, needing the genius of Roland Petit to make the first adaptation, in 1949. He created the choreography that to this day is adapted by companies around the world for his wife, Zizi Jeanmarie. The ballet – with Bizet’s music – also caused a reaction, due to the costumes that featured Carmen in a corset and the sensual scenes of the couple in a bedroom. Brilliant.

In the Soviet Union, the great Maya Plisetskaya dreamed of adapting the work for the Bolshoi stages but feared that if she used Bizet’s music she would have a negative reaction. Although she was married to composer Rodion Shchedrin, the dancer first asked Dmitri Shostakovich to compose a ballet about Carmen‘s story, but he declined precisely because he did not want to be compared to the definitive music by George Bizet. Aram Khachaturian, the author of Gayane and Spartacus, also declined the challenge, and only then did Maya turn to her husband for help. At the same time, the National Ballet of Cuba went on a Soviet tour and so the Bolshoi star told the company’s choreographer Alberto Alonso about her dream. It was Alberto who created the libretto and worked with dancers from the National Ballet on the choreography, which means he created the ballet on top of his sister, the great Alicia Alonso, and only then flew to Moscow to teach Maya the steps. It was on top of these rehearsals that Shchedrin agreed to rearrange the opera’s music and write original parts for the ballet.

The Russian version’s script focuses more on the love triangle than Petit’s version. In this montage, Carmen is a passionate and free-spirited woman, in contrast to the temperamental and fickle Don José. There is also a danced version of “Destiny”, which the gypsy reads in the cards and does not question, with a ballerina dressed in black and representing the character’s alter ego.

The scenarios signed by Boris Messerer also interfere with the narrative. They keep the dance inside a bullring, symbolizing life, uniting the bullfight and Carmen’s fate, with masked spectators and a uniformed judge representing society’s disapproval of the gypsy’s unconventional behavior. The murder scene puts all the main characters in the same arena, surrounding Carmen until her death.

And as Carmen’s fate is to shock, in 1967 then-Soviet Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva disapproved of the ballet’s view, both the modernist music and the sexual connotations of the story that she felt offended Spanish culture. In the words of the minister at the time, the ballet turned Carmen, “the heroine of the Spanish people”, into a prostitute. Shostakovich entered the circuit and managed to save the work from being banned from the company’s repertoire. The fight between the two women, however, went on for longer. Today Carmen is one of the popular works in the Bolshoi.

Even with two “definitive” options, even today Carmen continues to gain “updates”. The most recent, now in 2021, features the great Natalia Osipova in the lead role in a modern reinterpretation of the work signed by Dutch artist Didy Veldman. The ballet is set in the modern-day with a cast of five actors playing the actors, directors, and dancers working in Carmen and whose private lives begin to bleed into the characters they are bringing to life. Something like Antonio Gades did when he created his version (and turned it into a movie). The result, according to critics, is breathtaking.

Natalia Osipova, who’s danced herself all the versions, has everything to match Alicia Alonso, Maya Plisetskaya, and Zizi Jeanmarie. It is difficult for us to imagine the “best”. Alessandra Ferri, for example, was a great Carmen in Petit’s version as well as Alonso’s version.

See some of them and compare!

Alessandra in Petit’s version
Alessandra in Alonso’s version
Alicia Alonso
Maya Plisetskaya
Zizi Jeanmarie
Natalia in Alonso’s version
Natalia Osipova in Petit’s version
2022

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