by Hugh Gilmore

Jacques Bouhy the original Escamillo

It’s time I caught you up on the progress of the novel I’m writing. In George Bizet’s opera, “Carmen,” a young army officer, Don Jose, stationed in Seville around 1820, falls in love, against his wishes, with a lovely and bewitching gypsy girl. He throws over his army career, his sweet, hometown fiancée and his integrity to have her, and even joins her band of brigands and smugglers, becoming a hunted fugitive.

Matters get worse quite soon when he notices that Carmen has started yawning whenever he smiles at her. The more he whines and threatens her, the more she withdraws. When she falls for the most famous “toreador” in Spain, Escamillo, and it becomes obvious that Carmen despises him and will never love him again, Don Jose kills her.

In the final scene of the opera, he sings the famous line, “Carmen, I adore you” to her broken, lifeless body. The hovering police then drag him off to face a death sentence.

The first version of this opera I saw was a Francesco Rosi film production, “Bizet’s Carmen,” (1984). That film captivated me so much I began a quest to see as many productions of “Carmen” as I could. I’ve not counted lately, but I’d say I’ve seen two-dozen in the past year-and-a-half and probably about 30 YouTube clips from other productions. I’m not much of a re-reader or re-watcher normally, so that’s a fairly significant indication that I’m deeply captivated by this story.

While watching a Hungarian production of “Carmen” on a DVD one evening last June, I suddenly thought, “What if Escamillo wasn’t just some cheesy matinee idol who turned Carmen’s head away from humble, poor, miserable, victimized Don Jose? (Who after all, had stalked, and then murdered Carmen – who after all, was young, and had a right to love, or not love, whomever she pleased, and did not deserve to die.)

What if Escamillo sincerely loved Carmen? What if her death seriously and truly broke his heart? What happens next to him? How does he deal with his memories and his broken dreams?

Oh, and how about this? How does he deal with the scandal the whole affair causes? Yes, that’s it, I thought: I’ll draw all these characters off the stage and put them in the real world.

Let’s say that Carmen, Don Jose, Escamillo and the other characters were actual people who lived and loved in Seville in 1874 or so. Let’s say there really was a love triangle that worked like this: Carmen “dated” Don Jose for a little while, but he bored her. He was too naive – a country boy who didn’t “get it.” Too clingy.

She tried to break up, but he stalked her and threatened her. One night she met Escamillo in a tavern and they were mightily attracted to one another and had just begun a powerful relationship. On the day she was first supposed see him bullfight, Don Jose accosted her and killed her outside the arena.

Then, the media went berserk. Front-page news. “Love Triangle.” “Love Nest.” “Mad Passion ends in Tragedy.” “Soldier Turns Matador in Bullfighting Competition,” and so on.  The sensationalizing press from Seville is joined by frantic journalists from Madrid, Cordoba, Barcelona, and Valencia.

The entire Mediterranean is abuzz. The news spreads to France, Germany, London, and Vienna – even to the United States.

And, as always, the story is twisted. Every aspect is taken to a cartoonish extreme. “The arrogant bullfighter,” “ The disgruntled army man,” “Bewitching gypsies.” Salaciousness, lust, anger, violent passions. Seville as a nest of sin and sinners.

Poor Escamillo: Not only is he heartbroken – he also feels it is his burden to tell the world the truth about Carmen. But no one wants to hear the truth when the media have concocted something so much more blood stirring. And what’s more, Carmen’s family has stolen her body from the police and absconded in the middle of the night with her.

She will be buried in some private burial spot no one outside her family will know about. She has shamed her family by loving an outsider. She’ll get an unmarked grave. Escamillo sets out into the mountains, alone, hoping to find them, hoping to at least know her burial place, so he may visit her. And in his travels, what does he learn?

While her body is barely cold, a brash team of French operatic producers has dared to rush together a stage production based on her life and the famous, lurid, “love triangle of Seville.”

Really, to his perceptions, this is crass effrontery: “Carmen –The Musical.” How can human beings do such a thing to their fellows? How can they defame the name of this sweet young woman he loved? Who is this Mr. Bizet? Who are these actors and singers and dancers that can take someone’s life and distort it so maliciously?

Escamillo, frustrated in his search for Carmen’s family and already in Northern Spain, crosses the Pyrenees and heads for Paris. He will attend this opera himself. If it is as bad as he’s heard, he will confront these actors and actresses. In fact, he shall seek out Mr. Bizet himself.

I must close for now. You can imagine the fun I’m having, between the research and the story, trying to hold the reins on this runaway as it courses though Spain and France on a quest to rewrite one of the world’s greatest love stories before it becomes too well known.

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