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Musings on Carmen by David Dyer

This article has been inspired by anger, but more of that later.

I love music and have done so for decades, more than I care to recall in fact.

The trigger which released this enthusiasm was when , as a youth of about thirteen, I heard a recording on the radio of what turned out to be the Habanera from Carmen. This so enraptured me that I subsequently sat riveted by a broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme as it then was, of the complete opera from Monte Carlo with Jennie Tourel in the title role.

Needless to say I was hooked.

Now at that age I was by no means a studious type, far from it, in fact always better at sports than in the classroom, and my new-found enthusiasm for opera elicited far more ridicule from my peers than admiration. But I stuck with it, and thanks partly to the radio, and more importantly the Coventry City Record Library, I was able to explore and discover all manner of musical treasures. How I would love to have again that capacity of youth to be absolutely overwhelmed by the delight that a new discovery could bring.

As the years trickled by, as they do in one’s teens, my enthusiasm burned brighter than ever but remained firmly grounded in opera, mainly Italian but always with Carmen at the top of the list to maintain a French presence. Indeed Carmen was the first work purchased as a Xmas present for me by my parents when the family acquired a record player which would play LPs……I cringe now to think of that turntable, fitted with an auto-changing mechanism and a pick-up which would skate across the disc surface if you so much as breathed heavily. Despite this, from that point on, every night I would play and replay Carmen and any other discoveries as I sat doing my homework.

A few years later it was a similar story, but this time the work in question was a Vox recording of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony conducted by Otto Klemperer, and this was in the days when the only Mahler on LP were Symphonies 1, 2, and 4 plus Das Lied von der Erde.

By this time my explorations had gone further afield to orchestral music and, as had been the case with opera, was totally unselective; I listened to everything I could lay my hands on.

Some music touched me, some didn’t, and so it has continued. I never did learn to read music, let alone play an instrument, and even now I only read the notes accompanying recordings if the music itself first inspires a response.

Inevitably over the following years, new composers have been discovered and some old friends discarded, or more probably retained but for less frequent airings.

As with everything, taste changes with time, however some things remain undiminished. I have never ceased to loathe the taste and smell of tomatoes, neither have I lost the ability to be overwhelmed by the emotion and beauty of almost all Puccini ‘s operas. Sadly Verdi, whose music I enjoyed equally with that of Puccini in those early days now leaves me largely unmoved, and sometimes even irritated by what seems to me to be the predictability of the orchestration. But although Verdi has departed, a decade or two ago Janacek arrived. And most importantly, Verdi is still there to be re-discovered, because all these selections and rejections are based solely on my personal taste at any given time.

In my case the taste is based only on subjective response to the way the music sounds. I always try to avoid making pseudo-factual criticism of musical works and performances because I recognise that I totally lack any valid training or knowledge on which such judgements could be based.

However, I do believe that we are all entitled to express an opinion as to how we personally respond to something, and this brings me to the subject which inspired these musings.

It so happens that while my musical experiences and tastes have been expanding and changing over the years, along with my continuing and totally undiminished adoration of Puccini, there is still enormous affection for Bizet and particularly his music for Carmen.

I also greatly enjoy the arrangement for strings and percussion made some years ago by Rodion Shchedrin of some of Bizet’s music. It was written for a ballet, and its colour and rhythms are irresistible to my ears although I had never seen any of the various stagings until recently. What I did finally witness appalled me. This is a DVD of "Mats Ek’s Carmen" performed by the Cullberg Ballet. Interestingly the front and rear covers of the case make no reference to either Bizet or Shchedrin which may reflect conceit on the part of Mr Ek or possibly a laudable desire to avoid misleading prospective purchasers. Be that as it may, the music is acknowledged in the accompanying (interesting and informative) booklet as being Shchedrin’s arrangement, and the cause of my shock on first seeing the opening of the work most certainly does not lie with either the dancers or the musicians. Their performances seem to me to be beyond criticism.

No: the hostility of my reaction lies firmly at the door of Mr Ek. In fact my initial reaction when early in the action the dancers started shouting and lighting cigars was so strong that I promptly decided that I’d had enough and abandoned the experience.

Since then however the memory of the sheer ugliness of what I had seen persisted, and I decided that a second assessment was required.

Strangely, in one sense I owe Mr Ek a debt of gratitude, because my initial reaction that such vandalism ( my interpretation) really should not be permitted, on reflection was clearly absurd and unreasonable. After all, composers, conductors, and other musicians have been "vandalising" other artists’ works almost since music began, and furthermore they have thereby given considerable pleasure to millions, including myself, on numerous occasions. The Shchedrin arrangement itself is an excellent example.

I was therefore forced to accept that, as a choreographer, Mats Ek was entitled to do whatsoever he wished, although it would be interesting to have the view of Mr Shchedrin on this particular "realisation"

Deliberately, my viewing was accompanied on different occasions by three friends, all music lovers, none of whom was familiar with Shchedrin’s arrangement or had any preconceptions about what they were to see.

They all were enchanted by the music. One found the production and dancing interesting and even enjoyable. His wife was very lukewarm about the choreography, and the third found it ugly and unpleasant with the dancing often an irrelevance to the music or the original opera.

So was my initial reaction wrong. Having now watched the complete work three times I don’t think that my original revulsion was misplaced……as a personal response.

The music remains irresistible; the acting, athleticism, and gymnastic ability of the dancers is astonishing, and even graceful on those occasions when the choreography permits it, but so many of their movements are to my eyes grotesque and often ugly, even when the music is at its most flowing and lyrical.

So would I want to see it again….no thanks, unless Mr Ek was there to be booed and hissed at. A different production ?…by all means, because of course the music itself is beyond corruption no matter how Mr Ek and his ilk "interpret" it.

My reason for penning this screed ?, simply to warn traditional Carmen lovers to approach this particular offering with extreme caution. Had I purchased it myself, I would have felt disappointed, cheated, and very angry.

I imagine that there are many who will disagree with my response. This is their right.

But we live in an age when it seems to me that the distinction between interpretation and mutilation has become so ill-defined that I seem to recall a production of the Carmen opera in which the character of Michaela was discarded as being superfluous to that particular Producer/Director’s vision of the piece.

Caution would therefore seem merely prudent.


Read Arthur Baker's review of The Carmen Ballet

Read Peter Grahame Woolf's review

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