Few narratives have had the staying power of Prosper Merimée’s novella Carmen (1845) despite repeated pious expressions of horror at its allegedly disgusting, if not positively obscene, content. The original leading characters of this Spanish tragedy were a condemned murderer (the Basque Don José), the promiscuous and mischievous gypsy Carmen (object of José’s obsession), and her fierce husband/lover Garcia, chief of the bandits.
When composer Georges Bizet decided to base an opera on the novella (1875), he and his librettists, Meilhac and Halévy, cleaned the story up, banished the pimp Garcia, turned José into the miserable victim of Carmen’s wiles, added José’s pure and courageous fiancée Michaela to embody the Good Woman, a counterpoint to the amoral Carmen, and created the dashing toreador Escamillo as Carmen’s new love interest, a kind of justification for her perfidy.
The opera was initially a flop, its plot and characters, even in their comparatively sanitized condition, perceived as shockingly degenerate. Dejected, Bizet died a few months later, ironically just before Carmen was hailed as a masterpiece. The opera itself is so nearly perfect that it would take a bold composer to attempt to rival it. But with a change of genre from opera to ballet, the novella, bowdlerized libretto, characters and music continue to inspire ballet after ballet, the most distinctive and influential being Roland Petit’s chic, sizzling 1949 version, Alberto Alonso’s 1967 interpretation using Rodion Shchedrin’s cheeky re-orchestration of Bizet, and Mats Ek’s racy and explicit 1992 creation.
Italian choreographer Davide Bombana’s Carmen (2006, revised as a full-length version in 2009) is one of the newest interpretations and one of the most interesting. Bombana sees the archetypal story as simultaneously universal in time and place and as particularly appropriate to contemporary life, thanks to the modernity of its presentation of sexuality, sensuality and human nature. In his version, Don José and Michaela are an unhappy couple. José is bored with domesticity and resolves to pursue Carmen, symbol of intense passion, imperiously flaunting her sexuality and its triumph over all men she encounters — and it seems she can, and does, easily take on all comers. Her first pas de deux with José, the most tender they ever have, nevertheless foreshadows violence: the dance suggests both energetic foreplay and an inescapable fight to the death. Michaela’s attempt to woo him back is fruitless, and her pas de deux with José bespeaks the anguish of entrapment in amatory apathy.
At Lilas Pastia’s tavern, Carmen again dominates the scene, and José watches from outside as Carmen and her lover Garcia, chief of the bandit barflies, dance. After another very erotic pas de deux between Carmen and José, Garcia’s bandits take turns as aspirants to Carmen’s charms, but when Carmen, Garcia, and José are left alone and Carmen kisses Garcia deeply, tauntingly, José’s temper flares; he murders Garcia and engages in an anguished solo of guilt at the murder and jealous longing for Carmen.
Bombana wisely interpolates some comic relief here. As the bullfight is about to start, four transvestite toreadors in ruffled flamenco skirts and carrying huge fans cavort with great galumphing enthusiasm and occasional touches of mock femininity. It’s all about men performing men who are performing women, and an ironic comment on gender roles, sexuality and Spanish machismo. Enter Escamillo to the familiar Toreador aria — but not as a toreador. Instead, he’s a bull who crouches and lunges awkwardly, bellowing and threatening the toreadors, who themselves sing (off key) and whistle fragments of the song amidst general pandemonium.
When Carmen enters, she offers herself grotesquely to the bull as the drums echo and drive the savagery of the rituals of sex and death in Carmen’s and the bull’s graphic coupling. As the crowd carries the bull off on their shoulders, Carmen writhes luxuriously on the ground in post-orgasmic bliss.
When José appears, he and Carmen engage in terminal combat. As the drums dominate, the former lovers confront each other, seemingly equal in their fight to the death. Finally Carmen, dominating to the last, impales herself on José’s knife, and he mourns her death in a necrophiliac pas de deux as bells softly play the Habanera. As the ballet ends, he rocks the corpse like a grieving mother.
To house this archetypal tragedy, Bombana’s designer, Dorin Gal, has built a transparent backdrop that, with varying lighting, evokes the inside of a cage, a prison, an ultra-modern atrium and a coppery arena. The costumes are simple, minimal, uniform, with the exception of Michaela’s dowdy blue housedress, Carmen’s torn finery, the transvestite toreadors’ scarlet skirts, and Escamillo’s bull’s head.
Musically, Bombana’s choices are eclectic and adventurous. Like most choreographers, he draws heavily on Shchedrin, whose idiosyncratic tongue-in-cheek score with its mocking orchestration was initially banned in Russia as insulting to Bizet. Bombana has chosen a pared-down set of pieces from this source, with particular focus on the Habanera, entr’actes and intermezzi, and Carmen’s fatalistic aria in the opera’s Card Scene. He also uses selections from Bizet’s Carmen Suite.
The musical score is intriguing and effective, with its extracts from avant-garde composer/choreographer/filmmaker Meredith Monk’s Mercy, the energetic percussion group Tambours du Bronx’s Silence (actually, anything but), and José Serebrier’s arrangements of Bizet’s Carmen Suite. Monk’s work, full of unintelligible whispers, shouting in imaginary languages, and mysterious synthesized sounds, creates a vaguely ominous otherworldly atmosphere; Tambours du Bronx accompany the most violently savage episodes; and the acoustic guitars offer deceptive moments of fleeting gentleness. The juxtapositions of these tonalities and textures may clash, but they do so very effectively, replicating the conflict between Carmen and José.
As Bombana says, “It’s not a love story. There’s not really a happy moment for them, because neither of them will compromise. Carmen is a force of nature, an independent woman, faithful only to herself. José wants to change her — and that leads to tragedy. José is attracted to her sexuality but in the end that terrifies him to the point of killing her.”