Flower Power: Don José and Dangerous Love in Bizet's Carmen
Anne Midgette: Don José is in a way driven mad by his love, but if he's mad, it's in his obsession. I think most of us have been through wild mood swings and kind of passionate irrationality.
Rhiannon Giddens: From WQXR in the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
Andrew G. Marshall: You go along thinking, "Oh, this is going to be jolly. We've got gypsies and singing and dancing and the tarantella. Well, this is going to be a fun night out." Of course, it ends in bloodshed and horror.
Rhiannon: Every episode we take a close look at a single aria and then listen to it with fresh ears. Today, it's “The Flower Song” from Bizet's Carmen.
Roberto Alagna: He's a very macho man and he has all his love inside like volcano. When you have all this magma inside of you, it's something like this. For this reason, this aria is magical for me.
Rhiannon: Carmen may be one of the most popular operas now, but its premier in 1875 was met with shock and horror. An entire opera about a gypsy woman? A sexually liberated gypsy woman? She smokes, she smuggles, she sashays and seduces, she knows she's utterly irresistible and flaunts it.
Rhiannon: Truly scandalous. Now, the one thing that didn't seem to bother audiences at the time was the obsessive, possessive, jealous, and ultimately murderous soldier, Don José. When Carmen eventually leaves him for a bullfighter, Don José goes nuts and stabs her to death. Here's your lesson for today, never leave the tenor for the baritone. Now, if you take Carmen at face value, it's completely infuriating because it reflects some pretty outdated and ugly ideas about women, but if you take a slightly broader perspective, it's fascinating too because it holds up a mirror to our culture no matter what century we're living in.
Besides all that, the music is just unbelievably beautiful. Let's get into it. Today we're going to unpack Don Jose's, “Flower Song.” He's just returned from prison where he's held tight to the flower Carmen gave him when they first met. That would be symbolism, folks. It got him through those cold lonely nights behind bars. This aria isn't all sweetness and roses though, we see flashes of his anger and jealousy here too. Yes, Don José is a complicated man struggling to make sense of his complete vulnerability to Carmen. To help us make sense of him and this aria, I've called in some people to help. First up, tenor Roberto Alagna who sings his role at the Met.
Roberto: [sings] My first José I think I was 35 years old, and I was more impulsive, maybe more fragile. I think today my José is more real.
Rhiannon: We also have Anne Midgette.
Anne Midgette: We're rolling, we're good.
Rhiannon: She's the classical music critic at the Washington Post. As you can imagine, she's seen Carmen a time or two.
Anne Midgette: My grandmother, when I developed my sudden passion for opera early in college, gave me the Book of the Month Club's, Greatest Hits of Opera. One of those greatest hits was Don Jose's aria. It was the epitome of tenorhood for me.
Rhiannon: We also have Andrew G. Marshall, a writer, marital therapist, and opera fan.
Andrew: If Don José and Carmen turned up at my counseling room, I think I might actually bar the door, to be perfectly honest. I'd certainly hide all the knives. [chuckles]
Rhiannon: All right. That's our team of decoders for this week. Let's set them loose on the “Flower Song” from Carmen. Here we go. Don José is a rube from the sticks. In the prosper Mary May novel on which Carmen is based, I believe Don José has killed a man and he's had to go into the army to get away from his village.
Roberto: He killed a lot of people, but in the same time, he's like a hero for the population because I think in Seville small city, everybody talks about this new soldier who kill somebody and it is a mysterious man.
Andrew: The things that you need to know about him they present right at the very beginning, but we tend to rather glaze over it. We're told that he has a very, very strange relationship with his mother because his mother seems to be grooming a wife for him, which I have to say is just a little bit psychologically weird. I think that's a bit of a manipulative, overbearing mother.
Anne: Don Jose's mother sends Mikaella, the nice village girl, the girl next door to try to bring back, and then Carmen comes along and ruins the whole thing. Carmen befuddles him as a taste of presumably a kind of sensuality and life and vividness that he hasn't had before. He gets addicted to it.
Andrew: We have a passionate woman, a woman who just by touching this flower, imbues it with her earthy sensuality. Wow. He's just had a chaste kiss delivered by his mother through his girlfriend from outside the church. Which of the two would be more appealing to you?
Anne: This aria marks a turning point in their relationship, but it's also poignant in that this aria is really all of their relationship that we get to see in the opera. That is, they've met each other, he's gone to jail for a couple of months, they finally have their long-waited reunion, and this is their moment.
Roberto: After two months in jail, you can imagine he had a lot of memories and he fell in love more and more and more and more because of the wonderful gesture of Carmen when she threw the flower to him. Even that must be something very, very exciting.
Andrew: He is ramped up to almost breaking point by the time he comes, and he actually finally sets eyes on this delicious creature once again.
Anne: She begins dancing with him and she begins singing, she's got castanets, and then coming through her dance is the sound of the military call. It's time for the soldiers to go back to their barracks. He gets up and says, "I'm sorry, I've got to go." She's like, "You can't leave. You must not really love me."
Anne: The aria comes in the middle of this lover's quarrel basically. It's his rebuttal and proof that he really means what he says. This is his moment to make his big pitch to her.
Anne: He really wants to make a bid for her emotion. As he's pulling himself together, you hear this poignant introduction from the English horn, which plays a motif that we've already heard in the overture that in this opera signifies fate. It is an auspicious omen, shall we say, at the beginning of this moment of love but it is certainly a beautiful and wistful evocation to set the mood for what he's about to say to her.
Roberto: When you start this aria, it's very strange because it's another atmosphere, totally different of the entire opera. Even in the composition of Bizet's writing, the harmony is very, very different.
Roberto: Also, it's the only moment when you see Carmen falling a little bit. This very sensitive moment for her and that she's moved by the words José is singing.
Andrew: The love between Carmen and Don José is not what I will call a mature love, it's about the craziness of falling in love. This is when limerence is at its height. Limerence is that moment where you are walking on air that even the problems are actually an asset. The fact that she's a gypsy and is going to go all over the world is not a problem because with my love, I will help provide an anchor for her. At that moment, when you are in the crazy part of falling in love, anything is possible.
Roberto: It's a very difficult opening phrase technically because you start with the F [sings] and this is very difficult because F must be technically a close sound but in French, [foreign language] is open and the dialogue between them just before is very violent and very dramatic. Here you must in one frame, just with this entrance of the line, you must find a very soft sound but masculine male sound. This is not easy, believe me, to start this F with a good sound.
Anne: He spends the whole opera clinging to this remembrance of a love that quickly has gone sour and dried up just like the flower and the song. This aria is telling us exactly what to expect from José. He's the guy that clings to a bunch of withered flower petals and obsesses about the flower they once were.
Andrew: Men say, I love you, you're mine, and therefore, you are a possession and in the very toxic ways. If I can't have you, nobody's going to have you controlling way, but women are just as good at manipulating. We've already seen his mother controls him through this surrogate figure. The alternative wife. He got a very controlling love and it's not surprising that the love he has to offer Carmen is a very controlling love too.
Rhiannon: Having enacted the frustration of this thought at sexuality, if you will, he then begins to curse her. This is a trope in love poetry through the ages that you are so frustrated by the absences of beloved that you suddenly hate her.
Roberto: Yes, it is very interesting because you can feel the love growing up during the aria, but in the same time, he says very rude words. I swore that I will hate you.
Andrew: He's been having this internal debate about whether he should love her or hate her, and he's got a decision to make. Is he going to follow her or is he just going to say, "Yes, you're an attractive woman, but I'm going to stay with my sanity." It's that extraordinary moment of passion that could be the foundation for love, but often the more unsuitable it is, the stronger the passion is. That is what we've got here. If there were ever two characters who were destined to destroy each other, they've just met.
Anne: After he accuses himself of blasphemy, he quickly shifts back to the obsessive nature of his love. You get a panting rise to another climax in which he's repeating his words over and over again. "I only felt one desire, one desire, one hope to see you again. Carmen, to see you again." It's repeating, repeating, repeating the words while the music is cresting and cresting.
Roberto: Here you must do animato. Bizet wrote that. Like your heart start to beat more and more and more and you feel that you know this excitation of love growing up in your soul. After that, the explosion is in a tug of war Carmen. This beautiful note because he said, "You inflamed my heart and I wanted to see you again, Carmen."
Andrew: The aria carries him through a lot of different emotions because with love, and in this case, limerence, there is fear. Limerence is the most wonderful feeling in the world, but it's also the most terrible because this love might be unrequited. If you are somebody who follows the rules and is living a life of dull duty, somebody who is passionate and leading a life of freedom is going to be incredibly appealing because she is your opposite. Unfortunately, our job is not just to grab our opposite and hope that that's going to sort us out. We actually have to do the emotional work ourselves of finding a balance between duty and passion.
Anne: In the final section, then he, in a way, abases himself. He says, "All you had to do was appear and look at me once to take over my entire being, and I became your thing. I became something of yours." Saying that she had claimed him as her satellite.
Roberto: The most important phrase for me is at the end when he said that, "And I was not a man for you anymore, I was a thing for you."
Anne: And at the moment when he says, "I became your thing,” comes the climax of the aria in the very highest note that he sings.
Roberto: I never know before this moment in which way I will sing this phrase. The most important is to be sincere in that moment, not calculated. If you calculate it, it's not Don José. If you prepare this phrase before in your dressing room, it's wrong. The interpretation must be in that moment. You must sing this in many ways. Why? Because it's like real love. You can be in forte like an exultation or like a scream of despair.
It can be something like a shame, and it can be whispering. It can be also a screaming of deliverance, and it can be forte or piano. Even if you crack, it doesn't matter because it means you are moved and fragile. In fact, here you are free to do what you want. This is the beauty of this phrase.
Anne: Having given that ringing high note, he melts into one of the sweetest phrases at opera. This, "Carmen, I love you," which is rather than being heroic, is this sweet honeyed extended line.
He holds out the “t’aime.” It takes a long time for the orchestra to resolve. You have this long time of musical uncertainty where his love was out there and then at long last, the chord comes in at the very end. Then you get, "Ah, it's all going to be okay." You're just in this moment of like, "Oh, it's all fine." He loves her and then she looks at him and she goes, "No, you don't love me." The whole opera goes downhill from there as far as their relationship is concerned.
Roberto: My first Don José, I think I was 35 years old, and I was more impulsive, maybe more fragile because you don't have a lot of experiences of life. Everything now is changed because I'm more mature today, I'm 55. It's more than 20 years frequenting this character. Before when I was younger, I judged a little bit too much, José. Today, I have more compassion and more tolerance because I understand more the relation between men and woman. I understand more about love. I think today my José is more complete with maturity, with experience. My José today is more real. It's more human, it's more natural, and maybe it's more sincere.
Anne: The traditional way of seeing Carmen is as this femme fatale and she chews up men for breakfast and spits them out and poor Don José is a hapless victim at the mercy of this sexual woman. But our ideas about agency and femininity have advanced enough that now for a woman to be a free agent and try to stand up to a man who bullies her is an idea that's given a lot more credence, shall we say, and we're a lot quicker to recognize a man's bullying behavior as abuse. Fortunately, there are still ways to stage this opera without stripping the aria of its meaning. It's really a lovely piece of music.
Andrew: Going to the opera is an intense experience because opera is one of the few places left that you can experience the dark side of humanity. Unfortunately, modern stories have to end happily. The couple have to overcome everything and live happily ever after. I don't think there's anything harmful of actually telling us that love can go wrong. I think the much worse thing is what I would call the Disney style, that love will overcome everything.
Love is the answer, ain't no mountain high enough, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Every second pop song is about love will come through for you. You can't actually see the destructive part of love anywhere really these days beyond the opera. Something about the music and the spectacle allows us to look at the very worst of ourselves as well as the very best of ourselves.
Rhiannon: That was tenor Roberto Alagna, music critic, Anne Midgette, and marital therapist, Andrew G. Marshall, decoding “The Flower Song” from Bizet's Carmen. Ready to hear it all the way through? Here's Roberto performing it live from the Met stage.
There we have it. A song of such supreme beauty, sung by a complicated man, and actually, it's a complicated opera to perform these days. Don José kills Carmen. It's ugly, and it goes against everything we're trying to be as a society. Some people might say that we shouldn't enjoy these works of art anymore, that they're too problematic and that we should erase them from our cultural memory. If you're going to erase Carmen, you might as well just get rid of all Western civilization because so much of it is built on slavery and subjugation of women and all these other power dynamics that we're working so hard to correct.
I say that we can't really do that. We can't just erase these works, and actually, we wouldn't want to. Then what? Maybe we find a way of unpacking them without totally picking them apart. Maybe we find new ways of seeing them and directing them so that they shine a light on not only where we have come from, but where we are now and how far we still need to go. In all the while we can appreciate them for what they are, magnificent pieces of art.
That concludes our first season of Aria Code. I know. I'm sad too, but we hope to be back soon with many more episodes. As we wrap up this first season of Aria Code, I just want to say thank you for joining me on this journey, and thanks for all the wonderful things you've said about the show. It really made my day. I'd also like to thank the team of people who've been working with me to bring this show to life.
Our producer is Merrin Lazyan. Brendan Francis Newnam is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our executive producer. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boynton, and original music by Hannis Brown. Our team also includes Khrista Rypl and Justin Hicks. Thanks as always to our special guests, Roberto Alagna and Midgette and Andrew G. Marshall for their insights. This show is a co-production of WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera. That's it for this season of Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens and thank you. Yay. [laughs]
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