Duty and desire sometimes pull men in opposite directions. George Bizet’s Carmen explores that timeless inner conflict and its often tragic consequences. Though it’s brutal, this 1875 opera honestly shows how the male libido is like being chained to a madman.
In Carmen, army corporal Don Jose’s sick mother wants him to marry a perfectly nice local lady, but the Don finds himself fascinated by Carmen, a beautiful and free spirited gypsy girl.
“It’s like real life, how men are torn between a temptress and traditional love,” explains tenor Bryan Hymel by phone. “Don Jose can go for purity and a safe life with mom and his new wife. He doesn’t, but it’s his decision.
“Carmen doesn’t force him. She can’t.”
Carmen’s power to intoxicate is no joke, though, especially in Bizet’s Spanish-tinged score, sung in French with words influenced by the dark Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. Don Jose lives with constant shame for having murdered someone, having brought disgrace to his family. His mother is dying and her desire to see him married to a nice local lady is constricting. All of society is telling Don Jose to do the right thing.
In a way, Carmen’s comparatively weightless personal freedom is as seductive as her charms.
“Don Jose leaves the army for Carmen,” says Hymel, “and then she becomes his obsession. He becomes jealous and yes she’s cheating. It’s really hard on him. Soon she manifests both his desire and his self-pity. He traps himself with his actions.”
That trap isn’t just about sex. Carmen resembles an antidote to the society around her. As a gypsy girl, she has no stake in the township where the story takes place. For this Canadian Opera Company production, director Justin Way chose Cold War Cuba as his setting, where Don Jose’s constricting dilemma resonates like Carmen’s free use of her wiles to get what she wants.
“She’s very sexually at home with her body, which she uses as a tool to get what she needs,” explains Hymel, “whether it’s money or help escaping from jail. Women like Carmen really do exist.”
Overwhelmed with despair, Don Jose acts out. And men like Don Jose exist, too, who are weak and who become vicious when forced to confront their own bad decisions. Obligation versus impulse. Hard lessons and beautiful music combine in opera better than in any other medium.