Choices, Choices

Conductor Evan Rogister and director E. Loren Meeker provide a peek into the process of developing their own performing edition of Bizet’s Carmen.

“Few works from the standard operatic repertory present more choices for the artistic team than Bizet’s Carmen,” explains conductor Evan Rogister. “Following Bizet’s death, Ernest Guiraud not only added recitative for the Viennese premiere, but also significantly subtracted and added to Bizet’s original material. Although always well-intentioned and in some cases very artful, Guiraud’s solutions—the “traditional” version of Carmen that the world came to know—obscured much of what Bizet imagined for the opening night in Paris. In essence, Carmen was transformed from opéra comique into grand opera. Carmen as Bizet intended it only started to come to light in the modern age after two rounds of scholarship, one in 1964 by Fritz Oeser and one in 1992 by Robert Didion.”

“Every time I’ve worked on Carmen, the version has been different,” says E. Loren Meeker. “Many American companies choose to do the recitative version because, despite the true history of the piece, it has come to feel ‘traditional.’ It can also be challenging to bring long scenes of French dialogue to life for an American audience.”

Meeker and Rogister worked together to tailor an edition for Washington National Opera’s production. “We held that dramatic flow would be best served by an amalgamation of the two traditions,” says Rogister. “Our version is heavily weighted towards the original, but dialogues are significantly trimmed to maintain momentum.”

According to Meeker, “Spoken dialogue allows us to play with the tempo of the conversation in a way that recitative does not. Using the existing material, we sculpted scenes with an eye to keeping the drama moving. Often the longer stretches in the original dialogue are more concerned with establishing character than plot. To help streamline the dialogue, we looked for opportunities apart from the spoken text—a gesture, an interaction—where we might accomplish some of the characterization that otherwise took pages of dialogue.”

Meeker continues, “The most interesting conversations Evan and I had were around moving from dialogue into music. The structure of the opéra comique, with its alternating dialogue and music, pushes us to play the spoken scenes in such a way that a musical ‘number’ is the inevitable next step. Occasionally Evan would point out how the harmony in the recitative version could better help us build the tension and lead into the aria. In other places, we felt we would be better served with the dialogue, since it gives us the freedom to make some more dramatic choices in terms of timing.”

When considering when to use Guiraud’s recitative, Rogister took Bizet’s own recitative-like passage—the very classical and economical introduction to Carmen and Don José’s Act Two duet—as a standard. “Where Guiraud meets that standard—we’ve selected three instances—we feel the added recitative material actually helps to further the drama and link scenes. And we’ve reinstated several of Bizet’s own mélodrame—spoken text over his original underscoring. I find these particularly fascinating because they’re an opportunity to convey spoken text in what feels like a through-composed scene.”

“I’ve loved having the opportunity to work so closely with Evan on this edition,” says Meeker. “We all know that most of the operas in the standard repertory went through a process where the composer kept rewriting and reworking for months, sometimes years, after the premiere. Bizet unfortunately did not have that opportunity, since he died soon after Carmen opened. We do know that he wanted to write a revolutionary piece, and that’s just what he did—while Carmen fits the mold of an opéra comique in many ways, it also looks forward to the grittier verismo works that followed. It’s not too great a leap to say that, because of Carmen, we now expect a different kind of experience in the opera house. With our edition for WNO, Evan and I strove to create the same tension and excitement that Carmen’s first audiences felt.”