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Throughout the decades, the character of the fiery Gypsy lady Carmen has fascinated artists and particularly film directors. Charles Chaplin, Jean-Luc Godard, Cecil B. DeMille, Otto Preminger: all of them succumbed to her charms and temptation and felt inspired to adapt Prosper Mérimée’s famous novella of the Spanish femme fatale (1845) for the screen. Jacques Feyder’s film adaptation (1926) explores the novella’s (and, of course, the opera’s) timeless and daring issues with extraordinary strength. Ethnic otherness, sexual power and freedom are addressed here with all the visual luxury and power of French art cinema.

Alongside Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné and Jean Grémillon, Jacques Feyder was one of the ‘architects’ of French Poetic Realism. When he directed CARMEN for Films Albatros in 1926, the production was one of the first French movies to combine authentic locations (such as Seville, the Ronda Valley and other settings referred to by Mérimée) with studio shoots (Joinville, Nice and Montreuil). In addition, Feyder’s CARMEN challenged the narrative conventions of previous adaptations by remaining more loyal to the original novella than to the operatic libretto on which Georges Bizet based his opera (1875). This is why Feyder asked the renowned Spanish composer Ernesto Halffter – a student of Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel – to create something completely new and different from Bizet’s composition.

The film’s quest for authenticity also led to the participation of the internationally well-known Spanish actress Raquel Meller. She was the first popular Spanish singer to achieve worldwide fame. None other than Charles Chaplin approached her to star in CITY LIGHTS (1931). Although he failed to convince the Spanish diva, he ultimately incorporated one of Meller’s most iconic songs, ‘La Violetera’ by composer José Padilla, into the film’s soundtrack. Indeed, CARMEN had been conceived as a star vehicle for her. The cast also includes Gaston Modotand Louis Lerch, and attentive eyes can also observe Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel playing the part of a smuggler.

Alongside Raquel Meller’s portrayal of Carmen, Feyder’s brilliant camera work, Jeanne Lanvin’s lavish costumes and Lazare Meerson’s exotic sets, Ernesto Halffter’s orchestral score creates the perfect atmosphere of seduction, modernity and tragedy. Infused by a mysterious aura of fatalism, the music incorporates folk themes and colours from Andalusia that coexist with more contemporary textures and rhythms. Echoes of Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel and de Falla blend into his own skilful and moving score. Although the composer was only 21 years of age when he wrote this film score, he had already developed a sophisticated audio-visual instinct. As he explained in 1926, he “followed the film’s rhythm and atmosphere step by step, ensuring that the intensity of the musical drama did not swamp the on-screen drama.” Regarded as one of the leading Spanish modernist composers, Ernesto Halffter wrote the music for a dozen films and was awarded the Spanish National Music Prize in 1925 for his Sinfonietta, written just one year before CARMEN.

His outstanding score for this film may not rely on Bizet’s opera at all, but when performed live-to-projection it truly creates an operatic experience of its own!


Ernesto Halffter

  large orchestra (from 46 Musicians)    
3*.2.3*.3* - - timp.perc - pno - hp - str