Bizet’s Carmen, the Spanish “belle dame sans merci”


One of the most thrilling facts to me today that makes me hopeful about the future of humanity is that so many of the products of high culture, which used to be only available to a small, moneyed elite is now truly democratically available to everyone with a curiosity.

I’d wager that 90% of the Western literary canon is available for download for free in PDF form; there are great numbers of whole operas, produced by major houses, available with subtitles in a number of languages on Youtube. What a boon! (See my list.)What tremendous wealth of beauty and brilliance we all have access to. One could spend a whole life enriching one’s life with the highest and noblest of humanity’s artistic accomplishments at absolutely no cost.

One of my favorite past times is to watch video productions of whole operas; I don’t have to pay for expensive good seats in the theatre, and frankly, I love being at home! I used to have to buy rather pricy DVDs, and while I miss the crisp HD images, I will live with the no-cost variety offered by Youtube.

I just watched Carmen. Almost everyone will recognize many of the delightfully familiar melodies; the triumphant overture repeating throughout the opera, and the very famous Habanera, a musical encapsulation of the title character’s slippery, dark sexual allure.


The dreamy, young(ish) Placido Domingo and the peerlessly glamorous Teresa Berganza.


As with most operas, the storyline is not terribly complicated. Boy meets (very sexy, slippery) girl. Boy falls for girl. Girl leaves him for another. Boy gets mad, kills her. Oops.

We see the crimson skirt-twirling Carmen whose flamenco manton shawl slides on and off her shoulder, feet tapping in spell-binding rhythm. Bizet’s brilliant and lush Spanish melodies, with the moorish flute climbing up and down in tantalizing double harmonic major scale (i.e. the “Gypsy scale“), tambourines shaking, castanets-clapping, take us right to the fiery soul of Andalusia.




(By the way, being transfixed by the beauty of Carmen’s dress, the matador’s charisma, and the spectacle of Andalusian visual poetry made me rage once again about these ‘modernist’ productions that put operatic characters in Ann Taylor suits on Spartan stages. Right, because that’s what theatre-goers pay lots of money to see! Barf on a stick.)

We learn pretty much right away that Carmen, our protagonist, operates in taunting defiance of Christian moral code. She works a crowd of rowdy, adoring soldiers confidently, without shame, knowing that they are her mercy.

When she is accused of attacking another woman with a knife (a serious accusation), the entire town caught in a gossipy commotion, instead of reacting with righteous indignation or trying to clear her name, she sings teasingly, “Tra la la… Coupe-moi, brûle-moi.” (“Tra la la…. cut me, burn me!”)

Sentenced to imprisonment, she manipulates a soldier, Don Jose, into letting her free, as a result of which she successfully escapes and he is punished with months of imprisonment himself.

(When she learns of this, her response is not to feel guilty or sorry, but essentially “LOL Sorry not sorry.”)

He comes and finds her eventually; they shack up until, well, she’s bored of him. And who can blame her? From the beginning, to the end, he lets himself be manipulated by Carmen. WEAK!

Carmen is a cautionary tale of dark feminine magic that lead men to ruin, the power of unfettered feminine freedom and agency. Her sexual power reigns over all that come into contact with her; she is la belle dame sans merci! There is an unforgettable flamenco dance sequence where all of her intoxicating beauty is on display.

The women in Carmen’s gypsy coterie, in their itinerant travels, shuffle and cut cards, singing “who will love us, who will betray us?” They are deft hands at the art of clairvoyance. The forces of their dark magic rule the narrative; Carmen draws her own cards, sees death, and only death, confirmed over and over by repeated drawings. (One can only imagine how transgressive to 19th century Catholic sensibilities these must have been!)

Bizet loved his heroine, I think. She is the jewel of the play, irresistible, mysterious and swaggeringly in command of every stage she occupies. Carmen’s fate is tied to (more than one) man, but it is forever they are at mercy of her approving glance.

*Edited to add: A friend of mine tells me that the conductor of the SF Opera orchestra praised Carmen “as the greatest and most unlikely feminist works of classical music”. And I cannot agree more!


French opera singer Célestine Galli-Marié (1840-1905) in a 1875
French opera singer Célestine Galli-Marié (1840-1905) in a 1875 production.


There is the pious, virginal, innocent and loyal woman that is such a favorite operatic archetype in the 19th century: Tosca, Madama Butterfly, etc. (This type usually dies at the end. Oops.) In this opera, we have Micaëla, innocent as a rose, mother-approved, pure of heart, we quickly come to see is Carmen’s foil (then we forget about her, because — snooze.) Micaëla’s claim to Don Jose is that his mother longs for their union; she shamelessly invokes the mother’s sickness and dying like bait to attract back the object of her affection. We all know that his heart is still, perversely, with the cruel Carmen who is not dependent on him.


Norah Amsellem as Micaela in the Seattle Opera production.
Norah Amsellem as Micaela in the Seattle Opera production.


With absolute freedom — including freedom from Christian-bourgeois morality — comes the risk of death. Carmen’s freedom killed her!

Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!

Free she is born, and free she will die!

But Don Jose, her scorned lover, was not free, as he was in a pathetic spell. I think I, too, would rather die of freedom than of possessive love, and Carmen is the anti-saint embodying this particular dark ideal!


Get Missives from Our Lady of Perpetual Fuck Yeah (i.e. the patron saint of this website)! Every once in a while, I’ll email you a benediction, links to new posts and probably appraisals of sex scenes in whatever books I’m reading.

© 2018 A Theme

Simone Grace Seol