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Sunday, March 20, 2011


(Violina Anguelov appears in the title role)

A red letter event this month-end is the return to the Durban stage for the first time in 15 years, of Bizet’s Carmen. Presented by The Playhouse Company in collaboration with Cape Town Opera, Georges Bizet’s masterpiece tells a tale of love, passion and betrayal. Rich in musical highlights, this brilliantly scored work it is often called the world’s most popular opera.

In the light of this reputation, which few theatre managements would challenge, the scandal, controversy and disappointment that surrounded the premiere of Bizet’s last work make sensational telling, an episode in musical history often cited as an indictment on the perceptive powers of critics and audiences in failing to assess intelligently the significance of a revolutionary work of art.

In 1872, the co-directors of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, Adolphe de Leuven and Camille de Locle, approached Bizet to create a three-act opera, working with the librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Bizet himself suggested adapting Mérimée’s novella Carmen and, by mid-1873 had completed the first act, but complications at the Opéra-Comique caused Bizet to turn to other commissions. By the time he returned to the score, the theatre’s directors had begun objecting to the choice of subject.

The Opéra-Comique had a reputation for good, clean family entertainment, and with financial difficulties looming, box-office preoccupations were paramount. The unbridled realism of Bizet’s adaptation of Mérimée threatened unheard-of goings-on before an audience whose bourgeois respectability was hardly likely to take kindly to mutiny, theft, violent jealousy, adultery, brawling and murder as beguiling theatre fare.

Du Leuven was horrified at the prospect, and put pressure to bear on the authors to water down their material: although he seems to have had the support of the indifferent librettists, Bizet himself refused adamantly, and early in 1874 de Leuven resigned in protest.

The title role was offered to Marie Roze, who refused it as ‘scabrous’: it was subsequently accepted by the mezzo soprano Célestine Galli-Marié. Rehearsals began in October 1874 and lasted five months.

Bizet was harassed by orchestra and chorus, who found the music impossible to perform, and by du Locle who disliked the score and was haunted by mounting fear of antagonising his public. The librettists tried, behind Bizet’s back, to tone down the singers’ interpretation of their roles, but failed to restrain Mme Galli-Marié, whose portrayal of Carmen annoyed them as much as it pleased Bizet.

Carmen eventually opened on March 3, 1875. The final rehearsals had run smoothly, converting many of the company in favour of the work, but the opening night audience response was one of stony silence. Despite the congratulations of several colleagues in the audience, Bizet was deeply hurt by the public’s reception and even more so by the barrage of critical abuse which followed.

Of course, Carmen survived this historic failure. Bizet did not. It contributed directly to his death three months later following severe attacks of quinsy and two devastating heart attacks. Later, as the tide changed, and Bizet’s genius manifested itself in triumphant productions of Carmen around the world, much shame-faced covering-up went on; several of the 1875 critics recanted, while others dishonestly tried to claim their consistent support from the start.

The truth was, as posterity quickly realised, that in Carmen, Bizet had created a masterpiece beyond its own time. Few composers, Mozart and Verdi aside, have matched his dramatic punch, his extraordinary capacity to sink himself into his characters and allow them to move us as human beings living life to the limit. This gift, combined with his great gifts as a creative musician, gives Carmen its immense power in the theatre, a power that time has not dimmed.

Carmen stars the celebrated Cape Town-based Bulgarian mezzo-soprano, Violina Anguelov, in the opera’s title role as the tempestuous gypsy, with the swiftly-rising tenor Matthew Overmeyer set to burn up the stage as the love-crazed Don José. Soprano Bronwen Forbay is the faithful Micaela, and baritone Theo Magongoma the swaggering Toreador, Escamillo.

Directed by Michael Williams with designs by Michael Mitchell and conducted by Naum Rousine, the lavish semi-staged production will feature a strong ensemble cast, the Playhouse Company Chorale and the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra. With just two performances, on March 25 at 19h30 and March 27 at 15h00, early booking is strongly advised. Call Computicket on 083 915 8000 or book online at