The creation of operas from pre-existing literary texts is a complex process implicating the original author, the librettists, the opera directors, the publishers, and the composer. In the process of transformation, the involved parties consider prevailing cultural values as well as their own artistic ideals. These considerations weigh all the more heavily on the process when the literary text involves complex romantic relationships. Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875), Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (1887), and Claude Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande (1902) provide examples of this transformation process.
In all three of these works, love triangles figure prominently. These love triangles, though they share some superficial similarities, are extraordinarily different in terms of their composition and the ultimate fate of the characters. Carmen When the directors of the Opera-Comique, a venue with repertoire typically geared towards an extremely conservative, family-oriented, bourgeois audience (McClary, 1992, p. 15-16), commissioned Bizet to write an opera in 1872, Bizet suggested Prosper Merimee’s novel Carmen as a possible subject (Macdonald, 2010).
The directors of the Opera-Comique were divided in their support of this work as a subject for an opera. De Leuven, in particular, was against this choice, citing the scandalous nature of the story and the conservative nature of the venue’s target audience as reasons behind his disapproval: “Carmen! The Carmen of Merimee? Wasn’t she murdered by her lover?… At the Opera-Comique, the theatre of families, of wedding parties? You would put the public to flight. No, no, impossible. ” (as cited in Jenkins, 2003). Indeed, it appears that the on-stage death was of particular consternation for the director: “Death on the stage of the Opera-Comique!
Such a thing has never been seen! Never! ” (as cited in Nowinski, 1970, p. 895). The choice of Carmen ultimately played a role in de Leuven’s resignation from his post in 1874 (McClary, 1992, p. 23). The source text for Carmen is a novella by Prosper Merimee. The author originally published this work in 1845 in the Revue des deux mondes, a non-fiction journal. The author had previously published travelogues in the same journal, and this work contained no indication that it was a work of fiction (Boynton, 2003). Instead, the work reads as a “true” story of Merimee’s voyage to Spain in 1830.
In the midst of his travels, the author-narrator encounters Don Jose, the man who, after succumbing to Carmen’s seductive powers, kills her in a jealous rage following her confession of a love affair with Lucas. The librettists for Carmen, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, at the time that they were commissioned to write this work for the Opera-Comique had already successfully worked together as a team on a number of works (including Offenbach’s La Belle Helene and La Vie parisienne) for the Parisian boulevard theatres (McClary, 1992, p. 18).
In their previous librettos, the team had split the work: Meilhac wrote the prose dialogue, and Halevy supplied the verse (McClary, 1992, p. 18). In operatic settings, the prose would typically be left as spoken dialogue (for the Opera-Comique) or set as recitative. In transforming Merimee’s novella into a libretto, Meilhac and Halevy made numerous changes. Unfortunately, there is a lack of primary source evidence detailing the minutiae of the collaborative process which would shed further light upon the reasons behind these changes (Jenkins, 2003).
These changes include minimizing Carmen’s criminal activities, adding the character of Micaela, and eliminating Merimee’s framing device. The removal of Merimee’s framing device (accomplished by not including a narrator) and the introduction of Don Jose before his downfall make Carmen, and not Don Jose, the focus of the story (Jenkins, 2003). Indeed, the Carmen of the libretto, with her voice not being interrupted by the narrator’s commentary, speaks directly to the audience (McClary, 1992, p. 21).
Carmen was composed as a four-act opera comique, originally with spoken dialogue (as opposed to recitative). The dialogue was transformed into recitative by Guiraud for a production in Vienna, and it was performed this way for many years before producers reverted to Bizet’s original spoken text (Macdonald, 2010). Further changes to Merimee’s original resulted from Guiraud’s involvement. Meilhac’s original dialogues at times quoted directly from Merimee’s Carmen, and these instances of direct quotation were largely eliminated in Guiraud’s version (McClary, 1992, p.
45). With the addition of Micaela, the librettists created a moralizing character, the polar opposite of Carmen, with whom the Opera-Comique audiences could readily identify (McClary, 1992, p. 21). The addition of Micaela complicates the love triangle. In Merimee’s original, the love triangle included the characters of Carmen, Don Jose, and Lucas. In the operatic version, both Don Jose and Escamillo are in love with Carmen, and both Carmen and Micaela are in love with Don Jose. The librettists also substantially changed Carmen’s character.
Though they downplayed Carmen’s involvement in criminal activities (she is no longer the leader of the smugglers as Merimee portrayed her) arguably in order to make her more sympathetic, they focus almost exclusively on her sexuality (to the exclusion of her healing powers and intelligence as presented in the original) (McClary, 1992, p. 22). Bizet’s music underlines the differences in characters and underlines the complex nature of the interlocking love triangles in the opera. Micaela is presented as a sweet, pure, innocent woman.
Her entrance is conventional, and her music is marked by neither intense chromaticism nor indications of exoticism (McClary, 1997, p. 120). Carmen’s entrance, in contrast, disrupts the formal procedures Bizet set up from the beginning of the opera, and her music is largely chromatic and marked with features typically associated with the exotic (McClary, 1997, p. 120). Her music, like her body and personality, is irresistible to any man she sets her sights on. Don Jose’s music is different from that of both of his female admirers. His melodic lines are long, irregularly phrased, and lacking in regular cadences (McClary, 1997, p.
124). Additionally, he, unlike Escamillo, lacks a signature melodic line (McClary, 1997, p. 127). McClary points to the incompatibility of Carmen’s and Don Jose’s musical styles as evidence of the ultimate failure of their relationship. In contrast, Carmen’s brief duet with Escamillo in act four seems sincere because their musical styles are compatible (McClary, 1997, p. 125). Ultimately, Don Jose kills Carmen in a fit of jealousy over her relationship with Escamillo, and Micaela is deprived of her true love as he gives himself up to the police following his murder of Carmen. Otello
Though the two Shakespeare aficionados Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito met as early as 1862, it was not until 1879 that the events leading to the composition of Otello were set in motion (Aycock, 1972, p. 594). The four-act Otello received its premiere on February 5, 1887 in Milan. In transforming the play into opera libretto, Boito eliminated six of the fourteen characters and cut the entire first act (Aycock, 1972, p. 595). Boito also cut Othello’s statement of self-defence following his murder of Desdemona from the end of the play (Aycock, 1972, p. 596). This last cut serves to keep the opera’s focus on the tragic love story.
This love story principally revolves around the actions of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago. When the opera opens, Desdemona and Othello are newly married. However, Roderigo (Iago’s friend) still loves Desdemona. Iago, upset with Cassio who has been promoted over him, fabricates proof of Desdemona’s infidelity with Cassio in order to play on Othello’s jealous nature. The proof of this infidelity, in both the play and the opera, is a handkerchief. Othello murders Desdemona, and when he learns that his belief in his wife’s infidelity was mistaken, he kills himself.
In this story, both Roderigo and Othello are in love with Desdemona. Given Roderigo’s minimal role in the opera, however, Iago takes his place in the dramatic situation of the love triangle. It is his betrayal and deception that leads to the demise of the two main characters. The end of the first act contains a conventional love duet between Othello and Desdemona. As Aycock (1972, p. 595) remarks, the love between these two principal characters is mature and predicated on confidence in each other’s fidelity. The climax of this love duet, on the words “un bacio…Otello!…
un bacio,” features a new melody in the orchestra. This melody reappears only in the last act, most notably when Othello commits suicide (Lawton, 1978, p. 211). The character of Iago in the opera is much more the creation of Verdi and Boito than of Shakespeare. Iago’s Credo, where he proclaims his devotion to a cruel God and admits that he is unquestionably evil, was entirely the invention of Boito (Aycock, 1972, p. 600). For Verdi, the emphasis on this character allowed him to confirm to Italian operatic tradition, which called for a baritone villain role (Aycock, 1972, p. 601).
Pelleas et Melisande Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas et Melisande received its Parisian premiere at the Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens on May 17, 1893, and Claude Debussy was in attendance (Grayson, 1985, p. 35, 37). By the fall of the same year, he had already begun composing what would later become Act IV scene 4 (Grayson, 1985, p. 37). In the case of this operatic transformation, there was no librettist acting as a middle-man. Instead, Debussy constructed the libretto himself, from Maeterlinck’s original text. The composer remained true to the original play, changing nary a word.
He did, however, cut some scenes, and these cuts were made with the Maeterlinck’s authorization. In November 1893, the composer travelled to Ghent to meet with the author, and the two men discussed several possible cuts. Debussy reported to Ernest Chausson that Maeterlinck had given him “complete authorization to make cuts and even indicated some which were very important, even very useful” (as cited in Grayson, 1985, p. 37). From Maeterlinck’s original play, there were only four scenes that Debussy did not set: Act I scene 1, Act II scene 4, Act III scene 1, and Act V scene 1 (Grayson, 1985, p.
38). These scenes appear to have been cut because they are unrelated to the central narrative, leading to the demise of both Pelleas and Melisande. While Debussy used Maeterlinck’s original text, he did, in some instances, cut some of the text to make the libretto more concise. Act III scene 3, for example, was cut so heavily so that only one third of the original text remained (Grayson, 1985, p. 40). Two further cuts came in 1902. During Pelleas et Melisande’s first season at the Opera-Comique, Debussy was forced to cut one scene from the performances: Act IV scene 3 (Grayson, 1985, p.
39). This almost purely symbolic scene features Yniold (Golaud’s son from a previous marriage). At the end of the scene, Yniold, wishing to share his experiences with Melisande, unwittingly reveals to Golaud that she is not in her room (Grayson, 2003, p. 76) – in essence, he signals her disloyalty to her husband. The scene was reinserted in its second season. Also, at the dress rehearsal, the Director of Fine Arts, censored the work, calling for the suppression of Act III scene 4, a scene where Yniold is forced, by his violent father, to spy on the suspected lovers (Grayson, 2003, p.
80). Pelleas et Melisande begins with Golaud discovering Melisande by a fountain in a forest. She seems to be lost and confused, and she follows Golaud on his wanderings. The two get married in secret and return to the castle of Golaud’s father. There, Melisande meets Golaud’s brother Pelleas, and these two fall in love. In one scene, Golaud happens upon Pelleas caressing Melisande’s hair streaming out from a tower window, and he realizes that his brother has betrayed him. Golaud, blind with jealousy, kills his brother in Act III.
At the end of the opera, Melisande also dies, but not before giving birth to a daughter. The plot, then, revolves around the love triangle of Melisande, Golaud, and Pelleas. The unquestioning inclusion of on-stage deaths demonstrates how much the Opera-Comique had changed since the 1875 premiere of Carmen. From the time of Debussy’s first draft of Act IV scene 4 in the fall of 1893, it took almost a decade for the opera to reach the stage of the Opera-Comique. Debussy worked intensely on the opera in 1895 and completed a short score of the opera in August of that year (Grayson, 2003, p.
78). Though he had a completed opera, he had major difficulties finding a suitable venue for the performance of the work. Albert Carre, the director of the Opera-Comique, accepted Pelleas “in principal” in 1898, but he did not give Debussy written confirmation of the deal until 1901 (Grayson, 2003, p. 79). Though Debussy was ambivalent about Wagnerian leitmotive techniques, he does employ leitmotivs in Pelleas. While most of these leitmotivs are connected to ideas, each major character has his or her own leitmotiv (Nichols and Smith, 1989, p.
81). Melisande’s motive, for example, is comparatively lyrical, wandering, and typically played by oboes or flutes while Golaud’s motive consists of two notes in alteration with a more pronounced rhythmic emphasis. These motives are typically associated with different harmonic fields. Melisande’s melody is pentatonic but is typically harmonized with a half diminished seventh chord (Nichold and Smith, 1989, p. 91). Golaud’s motive, because of its sparse melodic line consisting of only two notes, is more harmonically flexible.
Debussy uses it in a variety of harmonic contexts including whole-tone, dorian, and minor. Comparison of Works These three works present a widely diverse picture of operatic life in late nineteenth century France and Italy. In terms of source texts, there is a novella (Carmen), a play in verse (Otello), and a play in prose (Pelleas et Melisande). In two of the cases (Carmen and Otello), neither the composer nor the librettist knew the author of the original literary work. In the case of Pelleas, the composer had direct contact with the original author and constructed the libretto himself.
These three operas were then composed in different forms: an opera comique in versions with both spoken dialogue and sung recitative (Carmen), a hybrid of continuous action with set pieces (Otello), and a largely through-composed work with one aria (Pelleas). In each instance, the transformation process reveals that it was not only the librettist and composer who were involved in the opera’s ultimate form: opera directors, publishers, and censors also had some hand in the final product. One shared trait amongst these three works was the need for the librettist to cut considerable amounts of literary material from the original text.
This phenomenon is understandable given that it takes a considerably longer period of time to sing a text rather than say it. In choosing sections of texts to cut, the librettists were faced with the challenge of leaving enough of the narrative design so that it would remain comprehensible to the audience. The composer could then use musical devices to fill in some of the gaps that this missing text created. For example, Bizet could use different musical styles to highlight differences in race and class (McClary, 1997).
Similarly, Debussy could use different harmonic languages (whole tone, pentatonic, modal) to indicate subtly differences in the quality of light (Nichols and Smith, 1989). A second shared trait is that two of the composers appear to have made decisions based on operatic convention in their composition of the opera. Bizet’s concession to operatic convention takes the form of the introduction of the character of Micaela, a character absent from Merimee’s original but whose presence, as mentioned above, was deemed necessary to make the work suitable for the conservative Opera-Comique audience.
Verdi’s concessions are evident in the finale to Act 3, where he asked Boito to alter the libretto to make room for a traditional grand concertato finale (Parker, 2010) as well as in the changes to Iago’s character mentioned above. A third shared trait is that these three works focus on love triangles, with an act of betrayal or jealousy leading to the deaths of one or more of the principal characters. In Carmen, the primary love triangle revolves around Carmen, Don Jose, and Escamillo. In the end, Carmen dies.
In Otello, the love triangle of Othello, Desdemona, and Roderigo has a tragic ending with the death of both Othello and Desdemona. Similarly, the Pelleas-Melisande-Golaud triangle results in the death of two of the characters: Pelleas and Melisande. In each case, the composer highlights one of the romantic relationships as being more viable or more sincere than the others. Bizet, as noted, employs different musical styles for each of the characters, with only Escamillo’s language being compatible with Carmen’s.
Verdi wrote a traditional love duet for Othello and Desdemona, the sincerity of which is highlighted with its aforementioned reappearance in the final act. Debussy employs a technique similar to that of Bizet: he has Pelleas and Melisande sing together in octaves in Act IV scene 4). The similarities between the presentations of the love triangles stops with this characteristic, for the relationship dynamics within the central triangles are quite different in these works. In Carmen, the title character is both the primary female love interest and the character responsible for the betrayal.
She betrays Don Jose’s love for her, however ill-founded it may be, by confessing her love for Escamillo. In contrast to the other operatic heroines studied here, Carmen is a femme-fatale. In Verdi’s Otello, the love between Othello and Desdemona is sincere, and neither one carries on an affair with someone else. The primary reason behind their deaths is Iago’s treachery. However, Othello does, in a sense, betray Desdemona by believing Iago’s lies. His acknowledgment of this betrayal can be seen in his committing suicide. In Debussy’s Pelleas, the guilty party is less clearly identified.
Melisande, though she betrays her marriage by falling in love with Pelleas, is not depicted as a femme fatale. Instead, she is presented as an innocent, idealized woman (Smith, 1981, p. 105). Pelleas betrays his brother by having an affair with his wife. Though Debussy, as mentioned above, sympathizes with their love and highlights the love Pelleas and Melisande have for each other by having them sing together in octaves. It appears that these characters are not to be held accountable for their actions because their love was inevitable, foretold in advance by fate.
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