• Character Study Corner: Don José

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    Hello! Just in case anyone was wondering, I’m still alive!


    The reason I haven’t posted here in a while is that I’ve been sucked into the gloriously addictive world of Tumblr. And while I was there I found a new love – amateur literary analysis. I’ve explored various different Tumblr blogs managed by English majors and other literature-lovers, who write long essays defending their favorite fictional characters from popular misconceptions about them. I’ve enjoyed reading those analyses so much that I’ve decided, why not do it myself? Why not write similar pieces about opera characters? I’ve already done it a little bit with my “Opera Canon vs. Opera Fanon” posts, but I didn’t go into the depth of the essays I’ve been reading lately.


    So here I am, starting with a famous character whom I think is a bit of a magnet for mischaracterization: Don José in Carmen.


    Again and again I’ve read the same description of Don José, worded in various ways but always with a the same gist: “A naïve young soldier who falls madly in love with Carmen, sacrifices everything for her, and then kills her out of jealousy.” But as far as I’m concerned, only one part of that description is really true: “young soldier who falls madly in love with Carmen.” The rest is slightly skewed. People seem to view him as just a knife-happier Latin version of Des Grieux or Alfredo Germont – and as with those two, they’re quick to harp on his “stupidity” and “weakness.” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the word “wimp” used to describe him, and it’s a pet peeve of mine, as are productions that cast boring park-and-bark tenors because the director and/or the conductor thinks the character is just a lovesick puppy who only exists as a fall guy for Carmen. What a disservice to one of the few genuinely complex tenor characters in the standard repertoire!


    Granted, this character-reduction isn’t fully the fault of the audiences who do it. For almost a hundred years, Carmen was almost always performed in a distorted, neutered edition of the score, and it often still is today. The Don José of Ernest Guiraud’s “grand opera” edition leans much closer to the above-mentioned capsule description than the José of the original 1875 opéra-comique libretto does – and even in performances of the latter, the spoken dialogue tends to be cut to ribbons, with some telling lines lost. But even then, and even in Guiraud’s recitatives, I think he’s more complex than some people give him credit for. I’ll admit, this is just my interpretation of him. I could be overanalyzing him, misunderstanding the male brain, misunderstanding the nature of love, etc. But as far as I’m concerned, he’s far more than just “naïve” or “wimpy,” and his reasons for killing the woman he loves are far deeper than just “jealousy.”


    Let’s start by discussing his past. Repeatedly I’ve read books that state “In Prosper Mérimée’s original book, Don José had to leave his homeland because he killed a man; this is left out of the opera.” Um… pardon me… no, it isn’t. It’s only left out of the Guiraud recitatives. In the original spoken dialogue, it’s right there, along with other details of his backstory, which he tells to Zuniga in Act I. He was originally going to become a priest, but made little progress with his studies because he was just a little bit wayward, spending too much time playing jeu de paume (a medieval sport similar to tennis). One day a man picked a fight with him for beating him at that game… and the result was that he had to flee to Seville. And even in the Guiraud edition, which cuts all this information, there are still vague references in his duet with Micaela to him “repenting” and his mother “forgiving him.” Even when it’s downplayed, we’re dealing with a man who has a checkered past from the start.


    With that in mind, let’s discuss the first adjective that’s often applied to him: naïve. Even I’ve described him as naïve in the past. But I don’t think that word should be overemphasized regarding him. While it’s true that the gypsies and smugglers’ world is foreign to him, and you could argue that he’s a fool to ever dream that Carmen could love him faithfully, he doesn’t fall for her because he’s naïve.


    Notice the beginning of his love for her. It’s not love at first sight – or if it is, it’s not a blissful sensation, but a disturbing one that he tries to suppress. I remember once reading a children’s book retelling of Carmen that said, “From the moment she appeared, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. ” The author must have felt the need to simplify for kids, because nothing could be further from the truth. She targets him because he’s the only man to ignore her. Whether it’s out of loyalty to Micaela (which the Guiraud recitatives would have us believe; the spoken dialogue is more ambiguous about whether he loves her or not), or just because of the values he was raised with (“These Andalusia women scare me. I don’t understand them. They’re always teasing.”), he resists her charms until she throws the fateful flower, and even then his first instinct is to be offended. Plus, in the uncut dialogue, he has a snarky line that sounds far from naïve: “Women are like cats; they don’t come when you call, but when you don’t call, they come.” Then, in the duet with Micaela, he sings of the “demon” to which he was “almost prey,” and during the Seguedilla he tries to resist Carmen with all his might. Of course he eventually caves, but still, he’s not a male version of Cio-Cio-San seduced by Pinkerton or Gilda by the Duke – trusting innocents who fall ecstatically in love, not realizing they’re being played. He knows from the start that Carmen is trouble, and he tries to stay away, but fails.


    Now let’s deconstruct the next often-heard statement: that he “sacrifices everything for Carmen.” The word “sacrifice” implies a willing action, like Butterfly giving up her culture for Pinkerton. But only one of José’s “sacrifices” is fully his own choice: letting Carmen escape after her arrest and going to prison for it. And even then, his feelings are complex. Even in the Flower Song, the sweetest, purest outpouring of his love for Carmen, he sings that in jail he cursed her and “detested” her, even as he pined for her – and this is before he has any inkling that she’ll be unfaithful. His first response to falling in love with her is to try to resist her (see above), and when that fails, the next thing he does is try to incorporate her into his existing life. He refuses to escape from prison even when she sends him the tools to do so (a detail cut from Guiraud’s recitatives), and despite having spent a month yearning for her, he insists on cutting their reunion short when the bugles call him back to the barracks. Then, when she demands he chose between her and the army, when he faces the classic dilemma of love vs. duty, what does he choose? Duty. He sadly bids Carmen “Farewell forever!” But then, of course, Zuniga bursts in, mocks him and tries to replace him as Carmen’s lover, and José attacks him, which leaves him with no choice but to run away. Everything he loses at the end of Act II – his honor, his place in the army, contact with his mother, and his whole life as he knew it – he loses because of his impulsive jealous rage. He doesn’t give them up willingly.


    This brings me to my next point. Jealousy obviously looms large in José’s character, but still, I think it’s reductive to say that jealousy is what drives him to kill Carmen. It’s partly jealousy, but not only that; he’s not like Othello, who idolizes Desdemona but then vows to kill her as soon as Iago convinces him she’s cheating. As I’ve outlined above, José is torn between love and hate for Carmen almost from the start. He loses everything he values because of her (loses because of, not sacrifices for; he fights tooth and nail every step of the way), and in return he obviously thinks he deserves her utmost love, loyalty, obedience, and everything else a man of his upbringing expects from his woman. But instead she demands more than she gives, never obeys him, loves him only on her own terms, and eventually stops loving him altogether and, in his own words, “falls into [Escamillo’s] arms, laughing at [José].” His murderous rage isn’t just about her leaving him for another man. That’s only the last straw.


    Yet another detail worth remembering is José’s devout Catholic upbringing. Some recent productions have emphasized it more than others (e.g. the religious imagery in Francesca Zambello’s Covent Garden staging, the crucifix he wears in the final scene of Richard Eyre’s Met staging), but it still tends to get overlooked. He studied to be a priest, for goodness’ sake! But even in productions that cut that information (i.e. most), the scenes with Micaela, representative of his old life, are full of references to God and praying. And if you read the libretto closely, you notice that his lines in the final scene are full of references to salvation and damnation. I wonder… should we take those references symbolically or literally? “Let me save you,” he begs Carmen, “and save myself with you!”: does he mean “from an empty life devoid of true love” or “from a life of sin”? He cries that he’s lost his “soul’s salvation”: does he mean it figuratively, or actually believe that his love for Carmen has damned his soul to Hell? And what should we make of his cry at the moment he stabs her: “Damnée!”? I’ve seen that word translated both as “Damn you!” and as “You are damned!” Is he just swearing, or does he see himself as sending her to Hell? Is he “taking her with him”?


    Last but not least, let’s discuss that label I’ve heard used again, again and again to describe him: “wimp.” Now, I won’t deny, he’s a hopelessly weak-willed man. I won’t try to claim that his rages equal strength – I know that a man who can’t control his anger is just as weak as a man who never stands up for himself. But I don’t think most people call him a wimp because he can’t control his anger. I think when they say “wimp,” they’re remembering his pathetic begging for Carmen to have pity on him in Act II and in the final scene. They’re remembering the Flower Song, the end of the Seguidilla, and every other moment where he lets Carmen rule over him.


    They don’t seem to remember that the Flower Song starts with him viciously grabbing Carmen by the arm (and in many productions, hurling her to the floor), declaring, “You will listen to me!” They seem to forget that he loses his status as a soldier not because he gives it up for love, but because he nearly murders his lieutenant out of jealousy, and that he repeats that scenario even more viciously with Escamillo in Act III. Not to mention his tendency to threaten Carmen that appears long before he kills her. Please tell me I’m not the only person whose inner feminist cringes in Act III when he grabs her and sings “I’ve caught you, damned whore, and I’ll force you to submit to the destiny that binds you to me!” I’ll admit that in some moments, he acts like a wimp, but in other moments he shows all the worst traits of a controlling alpha-male bully. The fact that people seem to forget about the latter disturbs me a little bit from a female standpoint. Some people say that Carmen leaves José for Escamillo because José is a sissy and she wants an alpha male… I don’t think so! She does what she does because she craves freedom, which Escamillo is man enough to let her have, but José never will.


    If José were just another lovesick tenor with a jealous streak, I don’t think I’d like Carmen half as much as I do. But he isn’t. He’s multifaceted. He makes horrible mistakes despite knowing better. He lacks a spine whenever he needs one most, but stands up for himself much too forcefully when he’d be better off yielding. He shows us the danger not just of loving a fickle woman, but of loving someone whose values and way of life are completely incompatible with yours. Yet it isn’t just love for Carmen that causes his downward spiral: the seeds are there before they even meet. He’s too wild to live a conservative life and too conservative to live a wild life. He tries to control both Carmen and himself, but always fails. He loves and hates Carmen with equal burning passion and it’s easy for an audience to both love and hate him. I’d never want to be in the same room with him, but I like him as a character, no question. He’s good old Don José, and Carmen wouldn’t be Carmen if he were any different.

    • Really excellent character analysis. In many ways Jose is much more interesting than Carmen, in that he goes through so many changes and develops more throughout the opera. Carmen herself remains a mystery – we never really know much about her or her feelings.

      Another thing your analysis brings up is the topic of surtitles, So much detail is necessarily missed and that’s without the ‘glossing over’ of text which either doesn’t fit the director’s concept or is deemed not’politically correct’. For instance, not sure I’ve ever seen “I’ve caught you, damned whore, and I’ll force you to submit to the destiny that binds you to me!” accurately translated into surtitles. And yes, the hackles do rise indeed, but I’d rather have accurate titles than censored. But that’s a whole new topic of discussion!

      • Yes, I thought about the surtitle issue as I was writing, though I decided that the piece was long enough without bringing it up. I’ve always seen “fille damnée” translated as “she-devil,” “accursed woman,” or things like that, which completely miss the fact that the word “fille” has connotations implying “whore.” Also, on a milder note, it bugs me when they translate his line about losing his soul’s salvation as “I gave my soul for you” – that makes it feel like he’s just saying “I gave everything for you, instead of actually implying (possibly) that he thinks he’s going to Hell because of Carmen.

    • Isn’t Don Jose from the Basque region of Spain which together with Carmen’s gypsy background adds another layer to the complicated relationship.

    • Well done. Excellent. Thanks.

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