Pre-performance Talk


A truly three-dimensional heroine                

 George Fleeton 

 This Talk was given at Lyric Opera’s production of Carmen in the National Concert Hall Dublin on 15, 16 & 18 October 2016.

The focus of the Talk  was on how the music in this opera both counterpoints and underscores the on-stage drama unfolding before us, the objective being to get lots of added value from our shared experience of the performance so that we leave the theatre renewed and refreshed – Aristotle’s catharsis.

Georges Bizet’s short life had many imaginative beginnings but few satisfactory endings.

He started work on 14 different operas that he never finished; he finished 4 that were never performed; and he wrote 9 that were produced: total 27, a similar output to that of Verdi and over twice as many as Puccini.

So he was an impressively active composer but unfortunately only 6 of those opera scores have survived, of which the best known are The Pearl Fishers, The Fair Maid of Perth and Carmen.

In Carmen, first seen and heard in Paris over 140 years ago and his one indisputable and influential masterpiece, his writing is clear, effective, imaginative, and his use of woodwind (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon) brought new dimensions to music drama; one instance is the flute solo (Carmen’s instrument) in the entracte at  act 3.

The ‘spanishness’ of Carmen sounds so authentic yet Bizet who never set foot in Spain is imagining it, not imitating it.

And the five classic and well-defined stages in all tragic narrative, which we find in Shakespeare for example, or anywhere good stories are told well, apply equally to Carmen, namely: anticipation, where the story grabs and retains our attention from the opening, exhilarating bars of the overture; then the ‘all is going unbelievably well’ phase; frustration which sets in as things start to go wrong; this is followed by the nightmare stage in which the scenario darkens measurably and everything spins out of control; and inevitably death or destruction is the only possible outcome.

The prélude synopsises the main tunes of the opera and Bizet sets Carmen’s provocative Habenera and her seductive Séguidille (act 1) to rhythms of traditional folk dances, with just a soupçon of flamenco.

He gives Micaëla (the antithesis of Carmen) two beautiful lyrical pieces: a duet in act 1 and her solo in act 3, each with great melodic strength, in music always reflecting the sense of the text and the emotion of the moment.

There is a whirling gypsy dance to  open act 2; then the toréador Escamillo tries to steal the show;  and this is followed by a wonderful quintette involving Carmen, her two girlfriends and the two smugglers, with staccato exchanges, both catchy and prestissimo, in a memorable piece of writing for five voices. 

The closest José gets to Carmen, and just for a few minutes, is her dance for him and his Flower Song, a noble, impassioned tenor piece, which may very well impress us but which  will in the end fail to impress her.

In act 3, after that exquisite woodwind entracte, the Card Trio sets up the nightmare scenario towards which the narrative has been heading since Carmen’s very first appearance ; and the confrontation between José and Escamillo only serves to confirm that.

But the tour de force is the final act, the last music that Bizet composed: José begins to fall apart; he shouts and cries out his passion for Carmen; she is defiant to the end, resigned to her fate; his jealousy erupts, and it all ends in broken utterances of desolation and despair.

It is through the music that we are engaged in the pain and suffering and in the fatal, mutual antagonism of José and Carmen.

In its own right, this would have been a gripping stage play in the theatre, so good is the script provided for Bizet to set to music, a stunning libretto – one of the best in all opera - which inspired him and in which he believed until  his death at 36, three months after its disastrous reception by a Paris audience, spoilt on softer material, which refused to accept its rawness and violence.

José comes across as a quasi-realistic character on his tortured musical journey and not as an operatic caricature; his infatuation with Carmen is credible, his self-destruction palpable.

And Carmen is the first truly three-dimensional heroine in 19th century French opera, up there with her literary counterparts Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina on the mount Parnassus of European culture.

This pre-performance Talk was illustrated with a film clip from Maria Callas’ Hamburg Concert in March 1962 at which she sang the Habanera and the Séguidille.

Our cast in this Lyric Opera production was headed by mezzo-soprano Hannah Pedley as Carmen, in her Dublin début, and by tenor Julian Hubbard as Don José.

The conductor was Anthony Negus and Carmen was designed and directed by Vivian Coates.

The next Lyric Opera production in the National Concert Hall Dublin will be Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on 18, 19 & 21 February 2017: and