I couldn’t have timed better the decision to replay my all time favorite Masterpiece Theatre Classic, "The Forsyte Saga," than the week the Metropolitan would broadcast its "Carmen." I had never really considered the fact that the two works and their heroine’s were so close; more sisters than cousins.
The similarities are striking
Both women -- John Galsworthy’s Irene Heron, like Georges Bizet’s Carmen -- are striving for freedom in a world of men obsessed, who are finally driven mad in their quest to possess them. Ironically, where almost everyone sympathizes with Irene, almost everyone blames Carmen. Why?
Most people (especially men) seem to be under the mistaken belief that Carmen seduces, criminalizes and finally callously abandons poor Don Jose. The fact is that in an odd way, Irene, in her hopeful innocence, is much more the seductress. She even tries to strike one of the maddest bargains in 19th century literature.
She proposes that she and Soames Forsyte marry with a proviso: If their "marriage agreement" should fail, she is to be released from all marital obligations because she does not love him. She wishes to escape a neglectful stepmother, near penury and a lustful stepfather-to-be for the safety of Forsyte’s hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
By contrast, Carmen offers the fulfillment of Don Jose’s desire, but is very clear in one of the most famous of all opera arias what "exactly " it is she is about :
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, Que nul ne puet apprivoiser.
Love is a rebellious bird, That no one can tame.
In each of the acts that follow, Carmen is a good as her word. Over and over she offers Don Jose a choice. He may embrace the free (if anarchic) life of Carmen and her friends (pirates and thieves), or he is free at any time to leave and most importantly he should expect nothing.
It is clear from their first encounter in Act One at the cigarette factory that he wants her and she offers to meet desire for desire, passion for passion. In a series of beautifully structured dramatic encounters there is first attraction, if fear (on his side), and doubt on hers. He will free her rather than deliver her to the jailer after she is arrested for a fight on the factory floor.
Good to her word, she waits for his release and becomes the grand passion of his life. Carmen is compared to the loving, but traditional, Michaela.
Galsworthy's Irene, by contrast, drags out Soames and her own misery through years of upper – middle class torment, being ravishing and unapproachable, both a wife and a stranger.
Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em
Both women provoke the same response: The men are undeterred and think they can change the woman and bend her to his desire. However, both men fail and are driven over the edge by the spectacle of seeing their object of desire possessed by other men.
In the case of Carmen, she announces her choice of the Toreador, Escamillo, but again, Irene's torment is greater. She leaves Soames not once, but twice! In 19th century fashion, such freedom cannot go unpunished.
Carmen, after letting Don Jose try the life of crime, advises and invites him to return to his old life - his old love and his mother. Irene, will for her part, endures rape and near prostitution before reaching safety.
Set to Bizet’s glorious music, Carmen sees her fate clearly. One night, over the reading of fortune cards (after an exquisite Nocturne - Interlude), Carmen is told of her own death. Still, she will not yield. Like Irene, she too will finally be stalked, but unlike Irene, who escapes, Carmen confronts her lover with unbearable truths and will not either repent or yield. Carmen dies one of the most ironically "heroic" deaths in all music -- outside a bullring with the echoes of the "Toreador Song" echoing in the air.
This year the Metropolitan Opera’s production of "Carmen" stars Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen, Nikolai Schukoff as Don Jose and Ildar Abdrazakov as Escamillo.
Listen to Bizet’s classic at noon this Saturday on KPAC and KTXI, and if you want to see the fate of her "sister" Irene, pickup the epic "The Forsyte Saga" (the original BBC version of 1967), which weighs in at 1,300 hundred minutes – take that Richard Wagner!