The two Carmen orchestral suites beautifully capture some of the show’s most memorable moments and bring the drama of the opera stage into the concert hall. Though writing for a Parisian audience, Bizet alluded to the opera’s Spanish setting with inspiration from the unique rhythms found in Spanish dance music. Spain’s musical tradition had its roots in the historical Islamic culture of the country, differentiating it from the musical traditions of other European regions. The Habanera sung by Carmen in the first act is one of the most famous tunes from the show and uses the distinctive rhythmic pulses of the Spanish dance by the same name. The aria has remained popular to this day – no doubt you’ll want to start humming along with the orchestra when they start to play it!
Another exciting Spanish influence comes in the form of Escamillo, the toreador (bullfighter). Bullfighting is a quintessentially Spanish sport, still popular today. Escamillo’s brash character encapsulates the necessary bravado of someone willing to stand their ground against an angry, charging bull. His toast aria is a highlight of the show and as easily recognizable as Carmen’s Habanera. In the suite, a robust trumpet stands in for bombastic baritone voice from the opera.
Another highlight, this time for its heartfelt tenderness, is Micaëla’s third act aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épourante” (I say that nothing frightens me). The melody captures a supple lyricism unique to nineteenth-century French music. Bizet’s mentor, Charles Gounod, was a master of this French lyricism and once joked that Bizet had stolen the music for this aria from him! The SSO is grateful to have the wonderful Danika Lorèn with us to sing this aria. Her powerful yet sensitive soprano brilliantly captures the lyric style and ensures that there will not be a dry eye in the house by the aria’s conclusion.
One of the most important musical themes from the opera is the fate theme. This theme opens the first of the two suites and sets the tone for both the suite and the opera itself. The descending line can be heard throughout the show as an ominous foreshadowing of Carmen’s death at the hands of Don José. The ill-omened tone of this theme is balanced by the serenity of the Intermezzo that follows. A pastoral flute solo lulls the listener to a place a deep contentment before Bizet introduces the Séguedille, another playful Spanish dance that will have you swaying in your seats. After the rhythmic and military “Dragons of Alcala,” taken from the prelude to the third act, the first suite ends with the energetic, circus-like music of the bullring. Though the music is boisterous, it is melancholic to remember that it functions as the sonic backdrop to Carmen’s tragic death.
While the first suite takes most of its movements from Carmen’s intermezzos and preludes, the second suite utilizes music from within the action of the opera itself. The suite opens with a segment entitled “Marche des Contrebaniers” (Smuggler’s March) which evokes the anxious playfulness expected from a group of smugglers. Following this, the listener is treated to orchestral renditions of Carmen’s Habanera, Micaëla’s third act aria, and Escamillo’s toast aria. “La Garde Montante” (The Rising Guard) is taken from the children’s chorus in the opera’s first act. The children sing about imitating the soldiers as the guards change over. The opening trumpet call and the march-like piccolo give the music a distinctly military flavour that, similar to the Smuggler’s march, balances optimism with a nervous energy.
The final movement, “Danse Bohème” (Gypsy Dance), finishes the suite with all the mystique that the name implies. The unexpected volume and melodic changes keep you on your toes and the cryptic oboe solo is delightfully intriguing. The music accelerates its way to a truly climatic finish that will have you on your feet, your heart pumping with courageous energy, ready to hit the dance floor yourself or even try your own luck in Escamillo’s bullring!