Subverting the “Good, Old Tune”

Carlos Saura’s Carmen


“In the performing arts the very absence of a complete score, i.e., of a complete duplicate, enables music, dances and plays to survive. The tension created by the adaptation of a work of yesterday to the style of today is an essential part of the history of the art in progress” (Rudolf Arnheim, “On Duplication”).

2In his essay “On Duplication”, Rudolf Arnheim proposes the idea that a close look at the life of adaptations indicates that change is not only necessary and inevitable, but also increases our understanding of the adapted work. To Arnheim, the most fruitful approach to adaptations is therefore to investigate the ways in which the various re-interpretations partake of the (initial) work and concretise latent aspects in a new historical and cultural context.

3This article analyzes how, and to what ends, the re-contextualising of Georges Bizet’s Carmen in other media—flamenco dance and film – changes, distorts and subverts our perception of the opera’s music. The text under analysis is Carlos Saura’s 1983 movie about a flamenco transposition of Bizet’s Carmen. I discuss this film in terms of how flamenco music and dance, on the one hand, and the film camera, on the other hand, gradually demystify the fascinating power of Bizet’s music, as well as its clichéd associations. Although these forms displace and defamiliarise music in many ways, the main argument of the analysis centers on how flamenco dance and the film image foreground the artificiality of the exotic sections from Bizet’s opera, as well as their inadequacy in the Spanish context, and also on how the film translates and self-reflexively comments on the absence of an embodied voice for Carmen.

“C’est la Carmen! Non, ce n’est pas celle-là!”

4As the credits from Carlos Saura’s Carmen are displayed against the backdrop of Gustave Doré’s drawings, we can hear the chorus of the cigarières from Bizet’s opera singing “C’est la Carmen! Non, ce n’est pas celle-là!”. Why did the director choose this particular section of Bizet’s Carmen with which to begin his film? Moreover, what is the significance of combining Doré’s drawings with these words? In a way, we can say that the reality/illusion polarity signified by the sung words informs and gives a preview of one of the movie’s main themes—the futility of an adapter’s attempt at finding a “true” Carmen. The music’s juxtaposition with Doré’s drawings of nineteenth-century espagnolades adds to the idea of artifice and inauthenticity: Saura seems to be dismissing Bizet’s music by pairing it with the work of another one of the creators of a stereotyped (and false) image of Spain. Demystifying the untrue image that foreigners have created of Spain is one of the film director’s main concerns in his adaptation of both Bizet and Mérimée’s Carmen.

5The movie’s production history reinforces this idea. In his book on the films of Carlos Saura, Marvin D’Lugo notes that in 1981 the French company Gaumont had approached Saura with the project of making a filmed version of Bizet’s Carmen, “with a maximum of fidelity to the original text” (202), an idea which the director clearly rejected. Another important aspect related to the production history is the fact that Antonio Gadés, the film’s choreographer and actor for Don José’s part, had previously created a ballet version of Bizet’s Carmen, based solely on the second act of the opera. The 1983 film production is then the result of Carlos Saura—the film director attempting to reframe the French opera in the Spanish context—and Antonio Gadés—the flamenco troupe director—collaborating to create a Spanish dance version of Carmen.

6The film’s constant superimposition of its two diegetic levels—the fictional level, consisting in the rehearsal scenes, and the actual level, which coincides with the characters’ lives outside of and in-between rehearsals—and the constant blurring of the lines separating these two worlds, have been the cause of a plethora of varying interpretations. Susan McClary sees the movie as “a brilliant commentary on ‘exoticism’: on the distance between actual ethnic music and the mock-ups Bizet and others produced for their own ideological purposes” (137); to D’Lugo, the film is an illustration and critique of how “the Spaniards, having come under the spell of the foreign, imposter impression of Spain, find themselves seduced by the falsification of their own cultural past” (203). Other notable interpretations come from Marshall H. Leicester, who sees the film as a comment on the fact that Carmen has become a discourse and a cultural artifact, and from Linda M. Willem, who interprets the movie as a metafictional mise en abyme.

7I will discuss the movie from a somewhat different perspective, bearing in mind, however, McClary and D’Lugo’s readings. Saura’s Carmen is also a story about adaptation, constantly commenting on the failed attempts at perfect fidelity to the source text(s), by the intradiegetic adapter (Antonio) and, at the same time, self-reflexively embedding hints to the presence of the extradiegetic adapter: the filmmaker Saura. On the one hand, as juxtaposed with flamenco music and dance, the opera’s music is made to appear artificial and inadequate; we are presented with an adaptation in the making, in which many of the oddities and difficulties of transposing opera music to flamenco dance are problematised. On the other hand, the film camera, by constantly foregrounding the movie’s materiality—the possibility to cut and edit the images and the soundtrack, its refusal to maintain a realist illusion—displaces and re-codifies music in other contexts, thus bringing to light dormant interpretations of particular sections of Bizet’s opera, or completely altering their significance.

8One of the film’s most significant departures from Bizet’s opera is the problematised absence of a suitable Carmen character. Bizet’s opera, however revolves around Carmen: it is very hard, if not impossible, to dissociate the opera from the fascinating Carmen personage. Her transgressive nature, her “otherness” and exoticism, are translated in her singing, dancing and bodily presence on the stage, all these leading to the creation of a character that cannot be neglected. The songs that Bizet adapted from the cabaret numéros in order to add exotic flavor to the music, as well as the provocative dances accompanying the Habaňera and the Seguidilla help create this dimension of Carmen’s fascinating power. It is through her singing and dancing that she becomes a true enchantress, inflicting madness or unreason on the ones she chooses to charm.

9Saura’s Carmen has very few of the charming attributes of her operatic predecessor. Antonio, however, becomes obsessed with her because she is close to his idea of Carmen. The film foregrounds the immense gap between the operatic Carmen and the character interpreted by Laura del Sol. This double instantiation of Carmen has usually been interpreted as a sign of the demystification of the stereotyped and inauthentic image of Bizet’s character. Another way to interpret it could be as a comment on one of the inevitable losses in the transposition of opera to dance: the separation of the body from the voice. Significantly, the recorded music of Bizet’s opera accompanies more the scenes between rehearsals than the flamenco dance sections, which are mostly performed on traditional Spanish music. The re-codification of the music reinforces the gap between Saura and Gadés’ Carmen and Bizet’s character. The character interpreted by Laura del Sol is not a particularly gifted dancer; therefore, her dance translation of the operatic voice fails to convey the charm and self-assuredness that Carmen’s voice and the sung words fully express. Moreover, the musical and dance re-insertion in a Spanish context completely removes the character’s exoticism and alterity. We could say, rather, that in Saura’s movie it is the operatic Carmen who is becoming exotic and distant.

10In one of the movie’s first scenes, we are shown an image of Paco de Lucia and a group of flamenco singers as they play and sing a traditional Spanish song. This scene is abruptly interrupted by Bizet’s Seguidilla; immediately after, the camera zooms in on Antonio, completely absorbed by the opera, which he is playing on the tape-recorder. The contrast between the live performance of the Spanish song and the recorded Carmen opera reflects the artificiality of the latter. The Seguidilla is also one of the opera’s sections that Bizet adapted so that it would sound authentically exotic, but which was as far from authentic traditional Spanish music as any of the songs that were being played in the cabarets of Paris in the nineteenth century. The contrast between the authentic sound of traditional Spanish music, as played on the guitar by Paco de Lucia, and Bizet’s own version makes us aware, more than ever, of the act of fabrication underlying the opera’s composition.

11Most of the rehearsal scenes in the movie are interpreted on original flamenco music, Bizet’s opera appearing mostly in the scenes associated with Antonio, to punctuate the evolution of his love for Carmen and to reinforce the impossibility of transposing Bizet’s music to flamenco dance without making significant modifications. This also signifies the mesmerising power the operatic music has on Antonio’s imagination, gradually transposing him in a universe of understanding completely different from that of his troupe, a world in which he becomes unable to distinguish reality from illusion. With Antonio’s delusion, we are reminded of the luring powers of the operatic fabrication. One of the scenes which foregrounds the opera’s charm is when Antonio watches the dancers led by Cristina rehearse some flamenco movements. While watching their bodies reflected in the mirror, Antonio is dissatisfied with their appearance—he doesn’t see any of them as Carmen. The scene ends with an explosion of Bizet’s music heard from off-screen—probably as Antonio keeps hearing it in his head—dramatically symbolising the great distance between flamenco dance and opera music.

12One of the rehearsal scenes in which Bizet’s music is heard as an accompaniment to the dance is the scene in which the operatic Carmen performs the castaňet dance for Don José. In the Antonio-Carmen interpretation the music that we hear is the Habaňera and not the seductive song that Bizet’s Carmen is singing at this point in the opera. According to Mary Blackwood Collier, the Habaňera song in the opera has the function to define Carmen’s personality as strong, independent, free and enthralling at the same time (119). The purely instrumental Habaňera, combined with the lyrical and tender dance duo of Antonio/José and Carmen in Saura’s film, transforms the former into a sweet love theme. In the opera, this is one of the arias that centralise the image of Carmen in our perception. The dance transposition as a love pas de deux diminishes the impression of freedom and independence connoted by the song’s words and displaces the centrality of Carmen.

13Our perception of the opera’s music is significantly reshaped by the film camera too. In her book The Hollywood Musical Jane Feuer contends that the use of multiple diegesis in the backstage musical has the function to “mirror within the film the relationship of the spectator to the film. Multiple diegesis in this sense parallels the use of an internal audience” (68). Carlos Saura’s movie preserves and foregrounds this function. The mirrors in which the dancers often reflect themselves hint to an external plane of observation (the audience). The artificial collapse of the boundaries between off-stage and on-stage scenes acts as a reminder of the film’s capacity to compress and distort temporality and chronology. Saura’s film makes full use of its capacity to cut and edit the image and the soundtracks. This allows for the mise-en-scène of meaningful displacements of Bizet’s music, which can be given new significations by the association with unexpected images.

14One of the sections of Bizet’s opera in the movie is the entr’acte music at the beginning of Act III. Whereas in the opera this part acts as a filler, in Saura’s Carmen it becomes a love motif and is heard several times in the movie. The choice of this particular part as a musical leitmotif in the movie is interesting if we consider the minimal use of Bizet’s music in Saura’s Carmen.

15Quite significantly however, this tune appears both in association with the rehearsal scenes and the off-stage scenes. It appears at the end of the Tabacalera rehearsal, when Antonio/Don José comes to arrest Carmen; we can hear it again when Carmen arrives at Antonio’s house the night when they make love for the first time and also after the second off-stage love scene, when Antonio gives money to Carmen. In general, this song is used to connote Antonio’s love for Carmen, both on and off stage. This musical bit, which had no particular significance in the opera, is now highlighted and made significant in its association with specific film images.

16Another one of the operatic themes that recur in the movie is the fate motif which is heard in the opening scene and also at the moment of Carmen’s death. We can also hear it when Carmen visits her husband in prison, immediately after she accepts the money Antonio offers her and when Antonio finds her making love to Tauro. This re-contextualisation alters the significance of the theme. As Mary Blackwood Collier remarks, this motif highlights Carmen’s infidelity rather than her fatality in the movie (120). The repetition of this motif also foregrounds the music’s artificiality in the context of the adaptation; the filmmaker, we are reminded, can cut and edit the soundtrack as he pleases, putting music in the service of his own artistic designs.

17In Saura’s Carmen, Bizet’s opera appears in the context of flamenco music and dance. This leads to the deconstruction and demystification of the opera’s pretense of exoticism and authenticity. The adaptation of opera to flamenco music and dance also implies a number of necessary alterations in the musical structure that the adapter has to perform so that the music will harmonise with flamenco dance. Saura’s Carmen, if read as an adaptation in the making, foregrounds many of the technical difficulties of translating opera to dance. The second dimension of music re-interpretation is added by the film camera. The embedded camera and the film’s self-reflexivity displace music from its original contexts, thus adding or creating new meanings to the ways in which we perceive it.

18This way of reframing the music from Bizet’s Carmen adds new dimensions to our perception of the opera. In many of the off-stage scenes, the music seems to appear from nowhere and, then, to inform other sequences than the ones with which it is usually associated in the opera. This produces a momentary disruption in the way we hear Bizet’s music. We could say that it is a very rapid process of de-signification and re-signification—that is, of adaptation—that we undergo almost automatically. Carlos Saura’s adaptation of Carmen self-reflexively puts into play the changes that Bizet’s music has to go through in order to become a flamenco dance and movie. In this process, dance and the film image make us aware of new meanings that we come to associate with Bizet’s score.