Today is the birthday (1838) of Georges Bizet, registered at birth as Alexandre César Léopold Bizet but baptized as Georges, a French composer of the Romantic era. Best known for his operas in a career cut short by his early death, Bizet achieved few successes before his final work, Carmen, which has become one of the most popular and frequently performed works in the entire opera repertoire.
During a brilliant student career at the Conservatoire de Paris, Bizet won many prizes, including the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1857. He was recognized as an outstanding pianist, though he chose not to capitalize on this skill and rarely performed in public. Returning to Paris after almost three years in Italy, he found that the main Parisian opera houses preferred the established classical repertoire to the works of newcomers. His keyboard and orchestral compositions were likewise largely ignored; as a result, his career stalled, and he earned his living mainly by arranging and transcribing the music of others. Restless for success, he began many theatrical projects during the 1860s, most of which were abandoned. Neither of his two operas that reached the stage in this time—Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth—were immediately successful.
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, during which Bizet served in the National Guard, he had little success with his one-act opera Djamileh, though an orchestral suite derived from his incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne was instantly popular. The production of Bizet’s final opera, Carmen, was delayed because of fears that its themes of betrayal and murder would offend audiences. After its premiere on 3 March 1875, Bizet was convinced that the work was a failure; he died of a heart attack three months later, unaware that it would prove a spectacular and enduring success.
I’d like to focus on the reception of his first and last staged operas, Les pêcheurs de perles and Carmen, to give some insight into the torments that Bizet, and other great musicians, had to suffer in their lifetimes largely because they broke new ground and were, in consequence, ignored or vilified by uncomprehending critics who would have done a greater service to the world by waiting tables than writing hopelessly ill-informed critiques. I love the title (and content), of James C. Whitson’s analysis of the early reception of Les pêcheurs – “Perles Before Swine” (Opera News 73 (4): pp. 34–36). Worth a read.
The reception of Les pêcheurs is curiously dichotomous. The premiere, originally planned for 14 September 1863, was postponed to the 30th because of the illness of the soprano lead, Léontine de Maësen. The first-night audience at the Théâtre Lyrique received the work well, and called for Bizet at the conclusion. The writer Louis Gallet, who later would provide several librettos for Bizet, described the composer on this occasion as “a little dazed … a forest of thick curly hair above a round, still rather childish face, enlivened by the quick brown eyes…” The audience’s appreciation was not reflected in the majority of the press reviews, which generally castigated both the work and what they considered Bizet’s lack of modesty in appearing on stage. Gustave Bertrand in Le Ménestrel wrote that “this sort of exhibition is admissible only for a most extraordinary success, and even then we prefer to have the composer dragged on in spite of himself, or at least pretending to be.” Another critic surmised that the calls for the composer had been pre-arranged by a group of Bizet’s friends, strategically distributed in the audience.
Of the opera itself, Benjamin Jouvin of Le Figaro wrote: “There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music.” He considered that on every page the score displayed “the bias of the school to which Bizet belongs, that of Richard Wagner.” Bertrand compared the work unfavorably with those of contemporary French composers such as Gounod and Félicien-César David. “Nevertheless”, he wrote, “there is a talent floating in the midst of all these regrettable imitations.” Hector Berlioz, however, provided the opinion of a genuine musician in the midst of the general critical hostility. His review of the work in Journal des Débats praised the music’s originality and subtlety: “The score of Les pêcheurs de perles does M. Bizet the greatest honor.” Among Bizet’s contemporaries, the dramatist Ludovic Halévy wrote that this early work announced Bizet as a composer of quality: “I persist in finding in [the score] the rarest virtues.” The youthful composer Émile Paladilhe told his father that the opera was superior to anything that the established French opera composers of the day, such as Auber and Thomas, were capable of producing. The moral of this tale is that you should listen to true musicians.
Les pêcheurs de perles ran for 18 performances only, alternating with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It closed on 23 November 1863, and although it brought the theater little financial success, Bizet had won admiration from his peers. I’m given to wonder if the lack of success of the opera initially was a result of the hostile critics, given that the premiere was received well by the audience.
After its opening run, Les pêcheurs was not performed again until 11 years after Bizet’s death when, on 20 March 1886, it was presented in Italian at La Scala, Milan. After this it was performed regularly in European cities, often with an Italian version of the libretto. These revivals, which possibly reflected the growing success of Carmen, were followed by the publication of several versions of the music that incorporated significant differences from Bizet’s original. In particular the finale was altered, to provide a more dramatic ending—”a grand Meyerbeerian holocaust” according to 20th century music historian WintonDean. This revised conclusion included a trio composed by Benjamin Godard. These corrupted scores remained the basis of productions for nearly a century.
Having completed the score of Les pêcheurs in August 1863, Bizet fell out with his publisher, Choudens, over publication rights. The quarrel was patched up and Choudens retained the rights, but published only a piano vocal score in 1863. After Bizet’s death in 1875 his widow, Geneviève Bizet, showed scant care for her husband’s musical legacy; several of his autograph scores, including that of Les pêcheurs, were lost or given away. Choudens published a second piano vocal score in 1887–88 and a “nouvelle édition” in 1893 that incorporated the changes that had been introduced into recent revivals of the opera. A full orchestral score based on the nouvelle edition was published in 1893.
A trend towards greater authenticity began in the 1970’s with various attempts at staging the work in its original form. This process was further aided by the discovery in the 1990’s of Bizet’s 1863 conducting score. In this, the orchestral parts were reduced to six staves, but notes and other markings in the manuscript provided additional clues to the original orchestration. These new finds became the basis for Brad Cohen’s critical edition of the score, published by Edition Peters in 2002. It is a travesty that it should take well over a century for the corruptions of incompetents to be expunged.
Carmen suffered more or less the same fate as Les pêcheurs initially. The depictions of proletarian life, immorality and lawlessness, and the tragic death of the main character on stage, broke new ground in French opera and were highly controversial. After the premiere, most reviews were critical, and the French public was generally indifferent. Carmen initially gained its reputation through a series of productions outside France, and was not revived in Paris until 1883; thereafter it rapidly acquired celebrity at home and abroad, and continues to be one of the most frequently performed operas – the “Habanera” from act 1 and the “Toreador Song” from act 2 are among the best known of all operatic arias. Carmen forms the bridge between the tradition of opéra comique and the realism or verismo that characterized late 19th-century Italian opera.
The music of Carmen has been widely acclaimed for its brilliance of melody, harmony, atmosphere, and orchestration, and for the skill with which Bizet musically represented the emotions and suffering of his characters. After the composer’s death the score was subject to significant amendment, however, including the introduction of recitative in place of the original dialogue; there is no standard edition of the opera, and different views exist as to what versions best express Bizet’s intentions.
The premiere, which was conducted by Adolphe Deloffre, was attended by many of Paris’s leading musical figures, including Massenet, Offenbach, Delibes, and Gounod. During the performance Gounod was overheard complaining bitterly that Bizet had stolen the music of Micaëla’s act 3 aria from him: “That melody is mine!” Ludovic Halévy (co-librettist) recorded his impressions of the premiere in a letter to a friend. The first act was evidently well received, with applause for the main numbers and numerous curtain calls. The first part of act 2 also went well, but after the toreador’s song there was, Halévy noted, “coldness”. In act 3 only Micaëla’s aria earned applause as the audience became increasingly disconcerted. The final act was “glacial from first to last”, and Bizet was left only with the consolations of a few friends. The critic Ernest Newman wrote later that the sentimentalist opéra-comique audience was “shocked by the drastic realism of the action” and by the low standing and defective morality of most of the characters. According to the composer Benjamin Godard, Bizet retorted, in response to a compliment, “Don’t you see that all these bourgeois have not understood a wretched word of the work I have written for them?” More consolingly, shortly after the work had concluded, Massenet sent Bizet a congratulatory note: “How happy you must be at this time—it’s a great success!”
The general tone of the next day’s press reviews ranged from disappointment to outrage. The more conservative critics complained about “Wagnerism” and the subordination of the voice to the “noise” of the orchestra. There was consternation that the heroine was an amoral seductress rather than a woman of virtue. Galli-Marié’s interpretation of the title role was described by one critic as “the very incarnation of vice.” Others compared the work unfavorably with the traditional opéra-comique repertoire of Auber and Boieldieu. Léon Escudier in L’Art Musical called Carmen ’s music “dull and obscure … the ear grows weary of waiting for the cadence that never comes.” It seemed that Bizet had generally failed to fulfill expectations, both of those who (given Halévy’s and Meilhac’s past associations) had expected something in the Offenbach mold, and of critics such as Adolphe Jullien who had anticipated a Wagnerian music drama. Among the few supportive critics was the poet Théodore de Banville who, writing in Le National, applauded Bizet for presenting a drama with real men and women instead of the usual opéra-omique “puppets.”
So much for the critics. My general advice to all those who aspire to be critics but lack true musicianship is: DON’T !! Do something useful such as driving a cab.
I was surprised to discover that there is a version of the meringue dessert, Pavlova (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/anna-pavlova/ ), called Bizet torte in eastern Europe, especially Latvia and Russia, but using flavored whipped cream without fruit. I have no idea what the connexion is between meringue and Bizet.
Here is a fine photo from this website about making Bizet torte http://femmeaufoyer2011.blogspot.com/2012/02/bizet-day.html. There’s a good recipe here http://www.tastebook.com/recipes/1987344-Latvian-Bize-Torte. But there is no need if you are experienced at making meringue. Basically you make three flat disks of meringue, then stack them with coffee flavored whipped cream in between the layers, and more cream on top decorated with chocolate shavings and sliced almonds.