On February 21, 1949, Roland Petit’s Carmen made its world premiere at the Prince’s Theatre in London.
Based on the 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée with composition from Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera of the same name, the passion throughout all of Carmen’s renditions has made it a hugely successful, timeless story.
While many ballets of the same stature of success can attribute their balletic origins to one choreographer, Carmen has been reimagined by so many influential masters that finding one world premiere is hard to pin down. However, Petit’s 1949 adaption was the first time choreography set to the famed opera composition was given a world stage.
Carmen will likely remain one of ballet’s most beloved antiheroines to take the stage for years to come, as she has been for so many years past. After myriad reimaginings of the story, the passion, violence, and seduction are never lost. The story keeps its integrity through these elements, and is loved by audiences time and time again.
PROSPER MÉRIMÉE'S NOVELLA
The original story of Carmen reads from the perspective of the author, Prosper Mérimée, as he journeys through Spain on academic business in the 1830s.
The novella is separated into four sections, the first two and last of which were omitted by Georges Bizet’s opera and most stage adaptions to follow.
In section one, Mérimée meets Don José, a kind and hospitable young man whom he assists in evading arrest after Mérimée’s guide discovers Don José’s true identity as a wanted thief.
In the second section, Mérimée has another fascinating interaction, this time with a Gypsy woman named Carmencita. He goes to her home in hopes of having his fortune read, but is rudely interrupted by none other than Don José. Carmen and Don José have a heated conversation in a language Mérimée does not understand, but shortly after he is escorted out by Don José and continues on his solo adventure.
Months later, Mérimée finds out that Don José is set to be executed the next day. Mérimée goes to visit the prisoner and hear his life’s story.
Part three is where the staged adaptations normally begin. Don José tells the writer about how he came to know the gypsy and how he ended up in jail. They became lovers after Don José helped Carmen escape from jail, but shortly thereafter became violently jealous of her other suitors.
Two were slain by Don José, but Carmen still chose another man over him. Don José was so overcome by passion and jealousy that he stabbed his beloved to death and turned himself in.
Part four simply explains Romani culture and some of their history.
GEORGES BIZET'S OPERA
The tragic opéra comique premiered in March of 1875 by French composer Georges Bizet. Upon its first appearance, audiences found it vulgar due to female characters who would cheat and rob, as well as graphic scenes of murder.
After a decade of it’s premiere, Carmen gained positive attention from critics and remains one of the most popular operas to this day.
This first stage rendition is where Prosper Mérimée’s point of view and character is lost altogether in order to focus on the relationship between Don José and Carmen. There are other major components lost, such as Carmen’s husband.
1949 BALLET PREMIERE
Over a century after the publication of the novella, Roland Petit’s Carmen ballet premiered.
The ballet was set in three acts, first performed in the Prince’s Theatre in London. The movement style is characterized as mimetic and angular, along with the majority of Petit’s other works. The gypsy elements of the protagonist are mostly omitted – Carmen was remade as a short haired, short dressed woman who is more French than gypsy.
The original cast included Petit’s wife, Zizi Jeanmaire, as Carmen, Roland Petit himself as Don José, and Serge Perrault as Le Toréador. The music was based on Bizet’s opera, but newly arranged and orchestrated by Tommy Desserr.
The ballet begins in the center of Seville, Spain. A crowd is dispersed by the young Carmen chasing and beginning to fight another girl. The guard Don José breaks up the fight and is about to arrest Carmen, but is struck by her beauty and lets her go, inviting her on a date.
That evening, the two meet at a tavern and dance together. They go to his room and the tavern dwellers dance. The couple plans a robbery, but it does not go as planned and after Don José kills one of the victims, he flees the scene.
Finally, at a bullfight, Carmen flirts with Escamillo, enraging Don José, who stabs and kills his lover.
OTHER BALLET RENDITIONS
⊙ Carmen Suite (1967)
Since Petit’s 1949 Carmen, several other notable renditions have been produced all over the world. The best known of which is Carmen Suite, choreographed by Alberto Alonso of Cuba. Alonso used music by Rodion Shchedrin based on Bizet but made for orchestra. This version was performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.
⊙ Carmen (1983)
Later, in 1983, Carmen was choreographed by Spanish choreographers Antonia Gades and Carlos Saura. This ballet was performed in the Théâtre de Paris by the Antonio Gades Company. The music used for this production was by Georges Bizet along with Antonio Gades and at least three other artists.
According to Gades, “I did Carmen because I didn’t like the stereotyped false image of her. She’s a woman who when she loves gives herself wholly and who never forgets what class she is even in the most exalted company”.
⊙ Carmen, Solo (2006)
Roland Petit produced a new version of the ballet, titled Carmen, Solo in 2006. Carmen, Solo incorporates bits of Carmen, Don Jose, and the Toreador. This piece was first performed by Nikolay Tsiskaridze, and debuted at the New York City Center for the “Kings of Dance” production.
⊙ Carmen (2009)
While still managing to capture the essence of the characters, the most reworked rendition of Carmen is set in modern times and includes a lot of major changes.
“This is a stylish Carmen with an edge,” says Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen. “By bringing the setting into the chic 21st century, we produced the classic story through contemporary dance language in a stimulating and visually stunning way that resonates with today’s people and with our audiences.”
Jorma Elo choreographed this work to be performed by Boston Ballet. It is said to be, “…a program celebrating the creativity, beauty, and power of women”.
Featured Photo for Classical Ballet’s Timeless Antiheroine captured from Royal New Zealand Ballet’s video
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I don’t know enough about ballet to offer constructive comments. However, this article is very well written by a first time writer Kendall Terashima. I hope to read many more of her light reading but well researched and written articles.