Habanera, Five Ways

Eddie Pensier writes:

Peut-être jamais, peut-être demain.
Mais pas aujourd’hui, c’est certain!
(Maybe never, maybe tomorrow,
But for sure, not today.)

John Singer Sargent, "La Carmencita" (1890)

John Singer Sargent, “La Carmencita” (1890)*

Who knew a descending chromatic scale could be so sexy? Carmen’s entrance aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, better known as the Habanera, from her eponymous Georges Bizet opera is nearly instantly recognizable, and probably counts as one of Opera’s Greatest Hit tunes. In fact, the tune wasn’t Bizet’s alone: it’s adapted (plagiaraized?) from Sebastián Yradier’s song “El Arreglito”. The common nickname “Habanera” comes from a popular style of nineteenth-century song, and means “in the style of Habana (Cuba)”.**

A Carmen can be made or broken by a mezzo’s performance of this aria. The key is a certain sultry confidence that cannot veer into cartoonish vampiness. Carmen’s allure is in her elusiveness: she’s unpredictable and passionate, and she utterly controls her own destiny. (Also, she hangs out with smugglers and works in a cigarette factory. Doesn’t get any cooler.) The aria sets out her life philosophy pretty clearly.

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser,
Et c’est bien en vain qu’on l’appelle,
S’il lui convient de refuser.
Rien n’y fait, menace ou prière;
L’un parle bien, l’autre se tait,
Et c’est l’autre que je préfère;
Il n’a rien dit mais il me plaît.
L’amour est l’enfant de Bohême,
Il n’a jamais connu de loi;
Si tu ne m’aimes pas, je t’aime;
Si je t’aime, prends garde à toi!
(Love is a rebellious bird
That nobody can tame,
And it’s useless for someone to call it
If it suits him to refuse
Nothing to be done, no threat or prayer.
The one talks well, the other is silent;
And it’s the other that I prefer
He says nothing but it works for me.
Love is a child of gypsies,
It has never known law;
If you do not love me, I love you;
If I love you, watch out!)

Here’s one of the great recent Carmens: the sultry Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča. Her Carmen (from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 Richard Eyre production) is earthy, direct and funny: not the least bit coy.  She’s also really gorgeous.

Our second performance is a) not a mezzo, but a soprano; and b) in concert rather than staged. But that’s okay, because it’s Maria Callas. Notice how she does all her acting with her eyes and her voice. This video is from 1962.

Bizet’s opera, scandalous and unsuccessful in his lifetime (the rumors that he died of a broken heart after its failure are probably not true) has gone on to be adapted into multiple media, including, inevitably, dance. The best-known is Roland Petit’s 1949 full-length ballet, but Alberto Alonso’s one-act version “Carmen Suite” (with music rearranged and re-orchestrated by Rodion Shchedrin) has musical curiosity value. The lissome Svetlana Zakharova dances the Alonso version in this clip, starting at 2:50. Listen for the unexpected yet very cool xylophone part in the re-orchestration, if you can tear your attention from Svetlana.

Dorothy Dandridge is dynamite in Otto Preminger’s 1954 “Carmen Jones”, adapted from Bizet via Oscar Hammerstein’s stage production. Check out Dorothy’s sassy rendition “Dat’s Love”. Poor Harry Belafonte doesn’t stand a chance. (Dorothy’s singing voice is dubbed by Marilyn Horne.) The video is dreadful: filmed off a flickering television. It’s still worth watching.

And lastly, the Habanera as performed by Beaker, Animal, and the Swedish Chef. Because everything’s better with Muppets.

Bonus: A textbook example of how not to sing the Habanera, by the normally excellent German mezzo Waltraud Meier (starting at 23:00). Her acting seems to consist of squinting, her phrasing is utterly unidiomatic, her middle voice has a bad wobble, and her French sucks.

*The painting has nothing to do with the opera, but I can’t resist the opportunity to post a Sargent.
**You may sometimes see the title of this aria written as “Habañera”, with a tilde. This is a sin against God and man, and also, wrong. Unfortunately it is also distressingly common. Playbill and Stagebill have both published program notes with this misspelling included. Now you know better.

About Eddie Pensier

Television junkie, opera buff, connoisseur of unhealthy foods, fashion watcher, art lover and admirer of beautiful people of all sexes.
This entry was posted in Music, Performers and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Habanera, Five Ways

  1. Callowman says:

    My first association. Prepare to be out-philistined.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As for the words: so interesting and sooooo true

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Faze says:

    The whole “El Arreglito” thing is new to me. The Habanera is not so much a rip-off as a clever inversion of “El Arreglito” — reminiscent of but not a direct rip off off the Yradier.



  4. Pingback: The Best of UR 2014 | Uncouth Reflections

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