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Finding the Russian in Carmen

Now that the Dresser knows about the connection between George Bizet's opera Carmen and Alexander Pushkin's poem "The Gypsies," she believes that she has found a new way to think about her departed, green-eyed mother. But first, let the Dresser backup and provide some anchoring details.


CARMEN_11-08_291TiedUp.jpgOn Sunday, November 16, 2008, the Dresser attended a performance of Washington National Opera's production of Carmen. In the lead role for that day's show was the powerhouse mezzo Denyce Graves. And even performing for a matinee audience typically filled with elderly operagoers, Ms. Graves exuded an unbridled sexuality that exceeded the energy expended by her leading men--Thiago Arancam as Don José and Alexander Vinogradov as the bullfighter Escamillo. The Dresser suspects that both Arancam, who bills himself as the Italian Brazilian lirico spinto tenor (spinto meaning "pushed" and characterized by the capability of being heard over a full Romantic orchestra), and Vinogradov, who possesses a rich bass-baritone, were capable of more vibratory passion in their singing. She also thought the chorus was dragging down the energy. CARMEN_11-08_172Escamillo.jpg

What was the low energy about--Sunday should be a day of rest? For this performance, Steven Gathman substituted for conductor Julius Rudel and therefore the conductor didn't have the connection with the players on stage? Everyone in the cast was so awed by Ms. Graves that they wanted to spend their energy absorbing her performance? The Dresser does not know--her eyes were fixed on the electrifying brightness of Washington's own diva. Denyce Graves graduated from the Duke Ellington Performing Arts School and she loves performing in Washington, DC, where audiences rightly stand up for her.


Carmen, filled with some of the best known and loved operatic songs-- "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" (Carmen's seductive Habanera "Love is a Rebellious Bird"), Carmen's lilting seguidilla folksong and dance tune "Près des remparts de Séville" ("Near the ramparts of Seville/At the place of my friend Lillas Pastia") and Escamillo's Toreador song ("Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre" ("Your toast, I can give it to you")--concerns the story of a fiercely independent gypsy woman who steals the soldier Don José from his fiancée, gets him into trouble with his commanding officer (who wants the sexual favors of Carmen), makes Don José choose between her life as a smuggler and the honest life of a soldier, and then dumps him for the bullfighter Escamillo. Although Carmen's fate is to die at the hands of Don José, this work is categorized as an opéra comique and was premiered in March 1875 at the Opéra Comique of Paris. The Dresser notes that according to the French operatic tradition, opéra comique combines singing with spoken dialogue, similar to the German Singspiel music drama (for example, Mozart's The Magic Flute). However, opéra comique derives from popular French vaudevilles.


The libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy is based on Prosper Mérimée 1845 novella Carmen. Mérimée's character Carmen was drawn from the real life Countess of Montijo, mother of Empress Eugénie of France (Eugénie was the wife of Napoleon III). Cycling back to the Dresser's opening statement, Mérimée's story was influenced by Pushkin's poem "The Gypsies," which Mérimée translated into French along with other works from Pushkin such as "The Queen of Spades." (Tchaikovsky, who was influenced by Bizet's Carmen, based his 1890 opera The Queen of Spades on Pushkin's short story.) What fascinated Mérimée about Pushkin was his attention to cruelty and psychological drama.

Pushkin's story of gypsies, like Mérimée's, concerns a man on the run from the law who takes refuge with gypsies. Unlike Mérimée's Carmen, the outlaw is the focus of Pushkin's tale. In the opera, Carmen's defiant challenge to Don José is to kill her or let her go. This comes directly from Pushkin's poem.

Since the death of her mother Rona, the Dresser has come to believe that her beautiful mother, born of a Russian father and who married five times (four husbands, the last one she married and divorced twice), deserves an opera. However, after the Dresser saw Denyce Graves play Carmen, the Dresser no longer feels the need to write a new libretto for the mother who once hurled a dinner plate at the Dresser's loyally loving dad.

In the operatic story of Carmen, jealousy flows around the gypsy with the fiery temper, particularly embodied by Don José. CARMEN_11-08_79BarScene.jpgIn the case of the Dresser's mother, the irony is that Rona was filled with jealousy over what she believed she did not have. In her poem "My Husband Discovers Poetry," Diane Lockward spins an unexpected study on jealousy.


Because my husband would not read my poems, 

I wrote one about how I did not love him. 

In lines of strict iambic pentameter, 

I detailed his coldness, his lack of humor. 

It felt good to do this.

Stanza by stanza, I grew bolder and bolder. 

Towards the end, struck by inspiration, 

I wrote about my old boyfriend, 

a boy I had not loved enough to marry

but who could make me laugh and laugh.

I wrote about a night years after we parted

when my husband's coldness drove me from the house

and back to my old boyfriend.

I even included the name of a seedy motel

well-known for hosting quickies.

I have a talent for verisimilitude.

In sensuous images, I described

how my boyfriend and I stripped off our clothes,

got into bed, and kissed and kissed,

then spent half the night telling jokes,

many of them about my husband.

I left the ending deliberately ambiguous,

then hid the poem away

in an old trunk in the basement.

You know how this story ends,

how my husband one day loses something,

goes into the basement,

and rummages through the old trunk,

how he uncovers the hidden poem 

and sits down to read it.

But do you hear the strange sounds

that floated up the stairs that day,

the sounds of an animal, its paw caught

in one of those traps with teeth of steel?

Do you see the wounded creature

at the bottom of the stairs,

his shoulders hunched over and shaking,

fist in his mouth and choking back sobs?

It was my husband paying tribute to my art.

Diane Lockward
from Eve's Red Dress

Copyright © 2003 Diane Lockward

Photos by Karin Cooper


Comments (2)

I LOVE THIS REVIEW. First let me start from the bottom to the top.That Diane Lockward poem is magnificent, and color it blazing RED! Also I like very much the parallels in Karren's review between Pushkin and the opera Carmen, and the interweaving of her own household diva, Rona. How great! Grace

Max Kern:

What a great poem by Diane Lockward. I wish i had written it.
i loved reading about the parallel with Puskin. Poetry and passion
should be the standard for theater and art. When did that go out of

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