Monday Motivation: Carmen and the proof of love
Last night we went to a performance of Bizet’s Carmen staged under the stars in Verona’s Roman amphitheatre – the city’s famed Arena. I love opera, but I’m no buff. Chat amongst aficionados leaves me grasping for the names of sopranos I’ve loved, productions I favour, arias I can name.
But I do know that Carmen is, musically, one of the most enchanting and dramatic of all operas. It tells the story of a tempestuous gypsy who takes as a lover a corporal, Don Jose, in the Spanish army, tempting him away from the rather more staid, but much more reliable love of his fiancé, the much-put-upon Micaëla.
But he remains faithful to his allegiance to the army – until, finally, Carmen forces him to choose between her and his duty.
Now this is the scene I want to examine because it highlights to an exquisite degree the difference between words and action, between telling and showing, between asserting and proving.
Don Jose hears the sound of distant bugles, signaling the retreat of his unit. He must fly to do his duty. Impatient with his fickleness, she tells him to go – and not bother to return. He can’t understand her. He loves her. “Never before you has any woman so deeply stirred my heart!” She expresses her disdain for mere words. “‘Taratata, my God! It’s the Retreat!’” she sings, “‘Taratata, I’m going to be late!’ He loses his wits, he rushes off, and that’s his love!”
He can’t believe her. He loves her, he insists, doesn’t she believe him? No, she says. Then, thinking to seduce her with sweet images and a more elaborate articulation of his love, he sings:
“The flower that you threw to me
stayed with me in my prison.
Withered and dried up, that flower
always kept its sweet perfume;
and for hours at a time,
with my eyes closed,
I became drunk with its smell
and in the night I used to see you!
I took to cursing you,
detesting you, asking myself
why did destiny
have to throw her across my path?
Then I accused myself of blasphemy,
and felt within myself,
I felt but one desire,
one desire, one hope:
to see you again, Carmen, to see you again!
For you had only to appear,
only to throw a glance my way,
to take possession of my whole being,
O my Carmen,
and I was your chattel!
Carmen, I love you!”
And, wonderfully, she tells him that he doesn’t love her at all, because what he proposes doing – rejoining the army – is, in fact an expression of his real allegiance. His words assert one thing – his actions quite another. He’s telling her that he loves her, but he’s showing that he does no such thing.
There are some interesting thoughts to explore about the competing roles of words and action in opera – and most especially upon the enormous stage of Verona’s Arena. It is a hundred metres wide, stretching across the entire width of the floor of the amphitheatre, which once hosted gladiatorial contests of the most gruesome kind.
Stage anything on a platform so enormous, playing to an audience of some 15 000 people, and you have to evoke huge emotions, and make the choices the characters make as clear as possible. Well, that’s what opera specialises in: the grand gesture, the clearest moral alternatives.
And that’s what the gypsy seductress does: she says, show me your love, prove your love, don’t try to win me with words.*
It’s good advice for all of us.
* Although, of course, the ultimate irony is that this is all we, as writers have at our command!