Source: WikiMedia Commons
Turning women into villains
Last month, a new production of Bizet’s opera ‘Carmen’, based on Mérimée’s novella
of the same name, opened in Florence with a surprising twist. In this production,
penned by director Leo Muscato, Carmen is no longer murdered in the jealous rage
of her spurned lover but instead kills him herself.
For those who haven’t seen the opera or read the novella, the 1845 story features
Gypsy seductress Carmen who, arrested, must seduce her guard and protagonist,
Don José, to escape. He falls in love with her, abandoning his post in the army and
his fiancé Micaëla to pursue her and her band of smugglers. He kills many along the
way, including former lovers, her husband, and when finally spurned by her in favour
of a new love interest, he kills her. The story is passionate, frantic, and intrinsically
Yet in changing the ending as Muscato does, he accidentally flies in the face of the
original message of the piece.
In the original, Don José, the possessive, patriarchal male, hounds Carmen as a
predator. He kills his rivals and pursues his quarry with the ultimate intention not only to marry but to own her. He seeks her for himself, and to force her to conform to the
patriarchal system to which he himself belongs.
She, on the other hand, is a free spirit. From Gypsy roots, and obsessed with fate,
Carmen enjoys men as she uses them, trading a favour – Don José allows her to
escape, and later allows her smugglers to move through his guard post – in
exchange for a day of bliss. She ultimately plays the patriarchy against itself, uses it,
profits from it, and for her transgressions she pays with her life.
What better example of a free young woman, torn down by the system that wants to
dominate and own her?
Carmen’s final death martyrs her. Forever young and beautiful, she herself knows
from the omens that she will die by Don José’s hand, and she makes the decision to
allow and accept it because, in her words, “Carmen will always be free”. Don José,
having stabbed her to death immediately turns himself in, gives up his freedom, and
is sentenced to death.
He remains part of the system and dies within it.
In changing this ending, however inadvertent, Muscato no longer allows Carmen to
stand for women and for freedom. Instead, she becomes superhuman. Her
obsession with fate and Romani fortune-magic, with which she once faced death
knowingly and proudly, now allows her simple invincibility. She cheats her own death
with a cheeky shrug towards the audience, a shrug that seems to imply that for
women who defy the patriarchy, there is no danger but to the men that pursue them.
Muscato crucially forgets that when there’s no danger to face, Carmen cannot be
Muscato’s intentions were honourable, attempting to bring light to the high rates of
domestic violence in Italy. A 2016 Italian National Institute of Statistics study showed
that of the 149 women murdered in Italy, half were killed by partners or ex-partners.
But changing ‘Carmen’s ending will not solve this issue, or bring attention to it.
Instead, Muscato is simply removing the tragedy of the piece, the final climactic
crime of femicide. He pretends that it isn’t possible for a woman to be killed by a
man, turning a woman’s tragedy into a trail of dead men left in Carmen’s wake. She
becomes a villain, instead of a hero.
Thus, it is no surprise that when the new production of ‘Carmen’ premiered in
Florence the singers and orchestra were applauded, yet Muscato himself met only
boos and jeers. In his attempt to twist the production to his own political purpose,
Muscato made the same mistake as Don José before him.
He attempted to own Carmen’s message.
By Josh Matthews