Good Girl, Bad Girl
So, in the final analysis, what are we to make of Carmen and the opera which bears her name? Those critics who take a historical approach generally approach Carmen as a morality play, with the hero, Don José, trapped between one woman who appeals to his higher nature and another who appeals to his more basic instincts. They point to the librettists’ statements concerning the addition of Micaëla, who was not in the original story, to provide a symbol of goodness on the stage. They also point out that the character of Don José in the source material was much less sensitive and actually considered the life of a bandit to be a reasonable alternative to the military.
The opera, however, is named “Carmen,” and not “Don José.” Though she may have less actual time on stage than does Don José, it is her personality that drives the action.
To see the dichotomy between Micaëla and Carmen as “good girl/bad girl” denies the complexity of the characters. It would be more accurate to say that the contrast is between a woman who lives within the boundaries of mainstream society and one who because of an accident of birth must function outside of that society. Bizet and his librettists are not passing judgment on the gypsies, whose principal violation of the law is smuggling, a relatively victimless crime.
Some critics have argued that in being forced to choose between Micaëla and Carmen, Don José must choose between a life of routine and a life of passion. However, from the reaction that she gets from the soldiers when she first appears on the scene, it is clear that Micaëla is quite a beauty herself. And a woman who is not afraid to venture into the mountains to find the man she loves and to personally confront her adversary (if she only wanted to get a message to him, she could have sent a messenger) would hardly seem to offer a man only a life of dull domesticity. From the way that he reacts to her playful kiss in the first act, it appears that the problem lies within Don José, as he cannot be attracted to a woman whom he identifies with his mother.
Though Don José clearly makes the wrong choice, Carmen herself is not an inherently bad person. For one thing, she is one of the few working girls in the standard operatic repertoire. And in her own way, she genuinely loves Don José. For her, love is a passion of the moment, not a life-long commitment. She seems to pick Don José out of the crowd because she sees in him a kindred spirit, and she is genuinely surprised by his adherence to bourgeois values, the ultimate cause of their breakup.
The way in which we see Carmen herself may depend to a great extent on the singer who portrays her. Maria Ewing, for example, plays her as a sullen woman driven by a sense of fate. Rene Crespin, another prominent Carmen, also focused on her dark side: “All people who look joyful have a dark shadow. I loved to be able to laugh onstage, I loved the lightness of the beginning, but underneath…” For her, Carmen is a female Don Giovanni, “sexually hungry but never satisfied.” Risë Stevens, one of the singers most strongly associated with the role, added “She is highly sexually motivated. She loves men, not one man.” Denyce Graves, a more recent Carmen, focuses more on her sense of joy. “She enjoys her physicality, but it’s wrong to play her as a hoochie-mama.” For her, the character is about “…freedom and love. She is the most honest character I play.”
Critic Steven Blier comments that “Today, Carmen asks us to consider what a strong woman does with her freedom.” Perhaps it was fear of this type of woman that so scandalized the Parisian audiences who first experienced this opera, but I suspect that Bizet, whose own marriage was far from blissful, was as much in love with his heroine as audiences have been for the past 130 years.