Musings on Carmen
by David Dyer
This article has been inspired by anger, but more of
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
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
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
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.
D J D
Read Arthur Baker's review of
The Carmen Ballet
Read Peter Grahame Woolf's review