This is one of the truly immortal melodies in human history, and one of a surprisingly small handful of straightforward melodic highlights in Bach’s work. It was originally the closing section to one of Bach’s cantatas, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, which wound up becoming perhaps the most famous of his cantatas after Wachet Auf primarily because of producing this perennial Classical-music chestnut. In reality, Bach was a melodist equal to Mozart and Schubert and possibly even greater, even if, for all his acclaim, he is rarely given credit for that aspect of his work. All his melodies are probably this good—it’s just that because he was the master of old-school Polyphony, there’s nearly always three or more of them playing at the same time. This means that however glorious the overall whole sounds, discerning and absorbing the individual melodies is extraordinarily difficult. Indeed, even an expert would probably have trouble with that because the sheer sensory overload of celestial beauty in Bach’s music makes it surprisingly hard to listen to analytically. Bach’s music is basically like looking into the sun…its beauty is so intense as to be blinding. Even this comparatively simple solo tune can be overwhelming in the sheer exquisite purity of its rising and falling melody…yes, even when reduced to the standard instrumental snippet form in which it is most often heard these days.
Tchaikovsky gets a good deal of scorn from the really extreme Classical snobs, who sneer at him as a ‘Pop composer’ because of his accessible melodies and open emotional appeal. And maybe that’s true in some sense, but if he’s a Pop composer, he’s the greatest Pop composer who ever lived, with the possible exception of Verdi, and I’d say there’s no shame in that.
This was the first of his three ballets, and thus by far the most groundbreaking of his works for the theater. The importance of Tchaikovsky’s influence on the ballet form cannot really be overstated. The truth is that ballet music wasn’t really an art form in itself before Tchaikovsky’s three landmark ballets. Most ‘Classical’ ballet music before that was just serviceable background noise for the dancing, basically the Classical equivalent of bad Disco; the idea that someone would want to listen to a ballet score on its own, without the dancing, was almost unheard-of. Note that the only ballet scores from before Tchaikovsky that anyone actually still listens to are a few pieces by French composer Delibes (particularly Coppelia), one of Tchaikovsky’s main influences.
Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, wrote ballet in much the same way as he wrote symphonic music, and while, unbelievably, critics at the time dismissed his score as ‘too complicated’ for a ballet production, it proved to be the ultimate game-changer for the format, inspiring such later giants as Stravinsky and Ravel to write dance music that was as much at home in a symphonic concert hall as a ballet theater.
Tchaikovsky’s music has always been the music of the tortured manic-depressive he was in real life, swinging wildly between deep sadness and wild, almost insane joy, but his ballets generally tended toward the ‘manic’ side of the equation, for perhaps obvious reasons. That said, this is easily the most melancholy and emotional of the three ballets—the majority of the score is still uptempo dance music, but there’s a good bit of haunting, plaintive, sorrowful melody as well, and it’s the only one where the plot ends in tragedy.
The plot, by the way, has varied a great deal in the various productions the work has received over the years. After all, even classic operas are constantly being reset in bizarre contemporary or futuristic locations, and the lack of actual words makes the scenario of a ballet much more flexible than that of an opera. We’ve seen an acclaimed version that played Broadway where the Swans are male and the Prince a closeted gay man, and there was even a questionable Australian production that tried to make it an analogue for the Prince Charles adultery scandal.
Still, one thing that has kept the scenarios from straying too far from the original outline is the fact that virtually every respectable production tries to use as much as they can of the famous choreography traditionally associated with the piece. Of that choreography, all that can be said is that it is some of the most exquisitely delicate and romantic dance that has ever been conceived for the stage, and totally worthy of being wedded to Tchaikovsky score.
It’s really quite amazing how well the score and choreography compliment each other, perfectly matching in tone and creating an atmospheric beauty that has made this the second most popular ballet in the world, beaten only by another Tchaikovsky composition, The Nutcracker. But while that work is unquestionably a delightful and sparkling piece, it doesn’t really approach the depth or elegance of this piece, which is less the Classical version of a Christmas extravaganza like The Nutcracker, and more of the ballet equivalent of a tragic opera. Like many operas of the time, especially in Russia, Germany and Eastern Europe, it is an atmospheric fantasy that taps into deep psychological truths.
This is very arguably the single greatest ballet of all time, with its only conceivable competitors being the other Tchaikovsky works and perhaps Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, so it’s not surprising that it has wound up becoming the image that most people immediately associate with ballet as a whole, the definitive archetype of the form.
The fact that this is one of the world’s two most popular operas (together with Verdi’s Aida) can certainly be attributed partly to the fact that it is so amenable to cast and stage by opera standards that you can pretty much put it on in a barn. After all, Linda Ronstadt once sung the role of Mimi, and while by all accounts she didn’t do a very good job, the fact that she could hit the notes at all shows how much easier La Boheme is to sing than your average opera.
But despite the generations of opera snobs who have turned their noses up at this work, the piece has charms and even glories quite apart from its ridiculous ease of production. For one thing, this is the only operatic tragedy I know of that is basically a comedy in its first two acts. This is hardly an uncommon construction for plays, and is by no means unheard-of in musical theater (witness such titles as Camelot and Into the Woods), but operatic tragedies are nearly always tense and dramatic from the very beginning. Even La Traviata, Boheme’s most direct predecessor at bringing organic drama to the opera genre, features a heroine who is quite transparently going to die from the first curtain, something La Boheme downplays for its own consumptive heroine. The untroubled romantic bliss and abundant humor of the first half helps give a far greater impact when the story turns to heartbreak, because we’ve seen these people when they were genuinely happy and thus really feel their sense of loss.
For another, despite not featuring the brutal violence that is supposedly a crucial feature of the genre, Boheme represents the ultimate achievement of the Verismo school of Italian opera. After all, the real goal of verismo was to capture the realistic existence of ordinary, everyday people, and then to exalt their feelings and problems with the same operatic lyricism previously reserved for larger-than-life characters. Well, Boheme does this better than any other opera, elevating simple young love and heartbreak among impoverished would-be artists to a sublime and epic beauty.
This of course leads us to the biggest reason Boheme is popular—the music. The big arias are ravishing and, for all their utterly accessible wealth of melody, deceptively sophisticated, but Puccini also excelled in creating elaborate musical scenes, something he is rarely credited for. The second act of the opera, for example, is essentially all one unified dramatic scene made of flowing melody, with even its big aria, the legendary “Musetta’s Waltz”, being seamlessly woven into the overall structure. Puccini also made perhaps the most impressive use of reprise in all of opera, giving the central lovers a deathbed duet made up almost entirely of echoes of their ecstatically romantic music in the first two acts. This makes the scene far more touching than any other death duet composed of entirely new music could be, and it genuinely feels like a real conversation between a loving couple about to be parted forever.
That’s what makes La Boheme special among the operatic canon…it makes more believable and organic use of realistic human emotion than any other opera in history except perhaps its direct predecessor La Traviata. It’s one of the most popular operas because it’s one of the greatest, and for all the flack Puccini gets from the snobbier critics, he is still undeniably one of the true geniuses of the form.
Carmen is one of the most popular Operas in existence, but it doesn’t really follow the standard Operatic format. It was an ‘Opera Comique’, one of the many Opera-lite subgenres that forsaged the existence of the Broadway musical, and it features relatively simple song structures and melodies for an ‘Opera’, as well as a fair amount of spoken dialogue (in the more authentic productions, anyway; many productions use recitative written by another composer after the actual composer’s death, but that practice has become increasingly frowned on in recent years). This is a large part of why this piece was even a success on Broadway back in the 1940s, albeit in an English translation and an updated setting, under the title Carmen Jones.
Carmen differs from other operas in more than just its structure. For one, it is a totally unsentimental work, with characters that seem to invite fascination rather than emotional involvement. Carmen is certainly a fascinating figure, strong-willed, complex, and utterly fearless, but she’s also a cold-hearted, manipulative maneater who pursues her own pleasure without really caring who she hurts. Her short-lived love interest Don Jose is even more unsympathetic…he comes across as a pathetic weakling who allows his obsession with Carmen to destroy both their lives, and the fact that he ultimately kills the person he claims to love makes his ‘love’ for her come across as more of a twisted obsession than actual love.
Granted, he wasn’t the first operatic Tenor character to wind up coming off this way, but the difference here is that the effect appears to be intentional, making Don Jose something of a deconstruction of the standard Operatic leading man. And the only other characters of any consequence are the insipid ingenue Micaela and the obnoxiously egotistical toreador Escamillo, leaving this as an Opera entirely without conventionally sympathetic characters. This is not especially uncommon in later operas (the Modernist era produced so many works in that vein that they almost became a cliche), but the only example I can think of prior to Carmen was The Coronation of Poppea, and that was back at the very first inception of the operatic form.
Carmen is also one of the most erotic operas in the repertoire, with the famous “Habanera” and “Seguidilla” arias ranking as two of the most enticing songs of seduction in all of opera. But what was most influential about Carmen was its dramatic naturalism. The material is rawer and earthier than the vast majority of Operas until that point in history, with a tone of gritty realism that seemed gigantically groundbreaking at the time for the stylized, florid field of Opera. In any previous opera, a Prima Donna who was stabbed would have sung a five-minute aria before expiring, but when Carmen is stabbed, she simply screams and collapses. These stylistic innovations would be picked up by Italian opera composers such as Puccini, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo, who would give them the name verismo (roughly translating to “truth-ism”), but it was this seemingly lightweight French quasi-operetta that really broke the necessary ground.
That said, the biggest reason Carmen has remained such a staple of the operatic repertoire has little or nothing to do with all those innovations. This is, quite simply, probably the most tuneful Opera ever written (its only conceivable competitor for that title being Verdi’s Il Trovatore). At least three of the tunes (the Habanera, the Toreador Song, and the theme that opens the Overture) are in the category of Classical tunes that even people who never listen to Classical Music will instantly recognize, and several of the other tunes come close to that status as well. The music makes occasional concessions to its Spanish setting, such as the use of Spanish dance styles like the Habanera and Seguidilla, but most of it pretty much sounds like the French composition it actually is. That said, with a score this magnificent, no-one has ever been inclined to complain.
Ironically, the first production of Carmen was a disastrous flop, and the composer, Georges Bizet, died in despair two months after the premiere, thinking what he rightly saw as his magnum opus had been rejected by the world. But if he had just survived a few months longer, he would have seen it take the world by storm…it only took about six months from the date of its premiere for the world to come to their senses and realize this was a world-changing masterpiece. In any event, for all the reasons I’ve listed and more, this is one of the greatest pieces of music theater of any kind ever written, and given that it is highly accessible even to those largely uninitiated with opera, anyone who has any interest in the theatrical and dramatic use of music should be familiar with it.