Carmen by Prosper Merimee

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I had previously seen the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet, so I thought I’d revisit it on CD during my opera phase in November. When I listened to the commentary CD for it (produced by the Chicago Lyric Opera), I discovered that the story was originally a novella by Prosper Merimee, so I downloaded the novella and read it as well.

Because Merimee’s novella seemed short and superficial, I can’t say it was a wonderful read. That said, I could recall the music as I read and imagine Carmen dancing to it, so I did enjoy reading the story in the end.

I didn’t enjoy Bizet’s opera as much as I enjoyed Mozart. It was not as smooth, and I found it harder to relax into. I don’t know how to explain it: it felt like an opera as I was listening, while listening to The Magic Flute was more like listening to beautiful music. Carmen the opera was pretty shocking when it first came out, considering the main character is a prostitute and there is a murder by the end. Bizet died a few months over its opening, thinking at his death that it was a failure. Of course, it took a little while, but now it’s recognized as pretty cutting-edge (in terms of music and plot development) for its day. Isn’t it interesting how the cutting-edge artists are always misunderstood at first?

At any rate, I was glad to read the original novella. It surprised me, however, to find that the main narrator is a Frenchman travelling through Spain (Merimee himself), and not anyone close to Carmen. This traveler meets the infamous Don Jose and the seductive gypsy, Carmen, through his travels. A few years later, he discovers that Don Jose is jail for murder, and he goes to hear his story. Chapter III (of IV), then, is the full story of Carmen and Don Jose’s relationship.

After this fabulous story, Chapter IV then digresses to the narrator’s studies of the gypsies, and I didn’t get it. I think the author’s intent is to show that people have no choice but to turn to crime. Don Jose’s last comment had been this, referring to Carmen:

“Poor child! It’s the calle who are to blame for having brought her up as they did.”

So maybe the narrator’s comments in the last section supported that idea. To me, it fell a little flat as a novella.

Then again, maybe Merimee really intended just to tell the story of a seductive and sexy woman. In the end, I didn’t find it to be superior writing or incredibly engaging, but it certainly was fun. Considering it was a rather short story (about 60 pages in Word, 12-point font), I am satisfied I read it. (I read it via Project Gutenberg.)

Have you read Carmen or seen the opera?

Do you think there is a “point” to it?

Reviewed on December 3, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I have not read Carmen, but I’ve heard it’s pretty anti-Romany, which is a pet peeve of mine, so I never picked it up. On the other hand, I’d love to listen to the opera. I hadn’t really listened to an opera, ever, until last year, when I went to one with Amanda, and thought it was fun. Since then I’ve listened to a few, but they’re REALLY hard to find, in their entirety, and just listening to an aria here or a chorus there isn’t as fun. I like operas because I like how the music is tied to the story – for the same reason that I like musicals, so just hearing a single song feels weird. Since you seem to know more about them than I do (not that that is a big challenge), what are some good operas/recordings to start with? I LOVED listening to Madame Butterfly (the ending broke my heart)…

  • Jason, well, like I say above, I think his point is that being a gypsy “made” her as she was. I don’t have any strong feelings about it so I enjoyed the book. I haven’t been listening to operas as a whole, but rather listening to the Chicago Lyric Opera commentaries, which my library has. They have plot summaries and excerpts from key songs. I like that approach because I get the story as well as the music!

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I don’t know much, if anything about opear. I’ve only seen 4 or 5 and I only just got in an opera listening mood in October!

    Sounds like I must find Madame Butterfly…

  • Carmen as a novella is pretty obscure, as an opera it’s fairly commonly performed by a number of houses. Many many operas come originally from books, novella’s, and plays.

    If you’re looking for starter music to listen to an entire opera through – Madame Butterfly is one of the best. Mozarts Figaros (Marriage of, and Barber of Seville) have beautiful music and the stories are pretty easy to follow.

    One of my favorites on stage is Eugine Onegine which is based on a Russian novel of the same name but the novel covers a lot more territory than the opera does.

    Eliser de L’amore is another great starter opera with wonderful music and a very entertaining and easy to follow story.

    My personal opinion is that the comedies make for a much easier entrance into the world of opera than the dramas – Madame Butterfly none-withstanding.

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