Carmen was the first opera I ever saw. I was probably 13 years old and my school took a field trip into Manhattan to the Metropolitan Opera for a matinee. Sadly, I remember very little of this performance. It was in the old Metropolitan Opera building, before they moved to Lincoln Center, before Lincoln Center was even built. We sat very high up in an upper balcony. I remember that Carmen was wearing a red dress in the last scene, the one where she gets stabbed and dies. I remember that part, too. I also remember the two rude junior boys sitting behind me making comments during the opera.
This past Friday was the second time I saw Carmen, this time at Lyric Opera of Chicago. My husband and I sat on the main floor pretty close to the stage. Nowadays there are supertitles projected above the stage so audiences actually know what the characters are saying! It's an interesting staging set during the Spanish Civil War, rather than the time period of the novella that it was based on, which is 1820. I loved seeing the fashions and hair styles of the 1930s.
We went to the pre-performance talk. My impression of Carmen had always been that she was a flirt and pretty wild and free. She begins a love relationship with Don Jose and then dumps him for a toreador. This speaker, though, had a different view. Carmen rejects Don Jose because he is abusive and controlling and finds in Escamillo, the toreador, someone who "gets her." His evidence is in the duet that they sing shortly before Don Jose kills her.
So, after watching the show, I considered that interpretation and decided he was wrong. Yes, Don Jose is controlling and even abusive, at least in this production, but Carmen is no innocent. She manipulates Don Jose into deserting from the army and joining the rebels in the mountains, and then breaks up with him. He has cause to be pissed at her, though not to control or kill her, of course. I also disagreed that there is any evidence that Escamillo "gets" Carmen. In the duet that the speaker gave as evidence Escamillo sings to Carmen that she will be so proud of him when he kills the bull. Throughout the opera Escamillo seems like a pretty shallow guy who is quite impressed with himself. I think this might be the language arts teacher in me.
I should say, the music is gorgeous! The orchestra and singers were wonderful. Opera is such a unique art form. You can just enjoy it for the music. It lends itself to a multitude of stagings and interpretations. You can focus on the story line, or how it's presented. Seeing an opera once doesn't mean you have seen all there is in that work. I'm a late-comer to opera, but I'm glad I'm finally at the opera!