Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Opera's Carmen, The Gypsy Drug Smuggler

Elina Garanca as Carmen with Roberto Alagna as Don José at the Met
As a treat for those of us (almost everyone, it seems) who are "sheltering in place" these days, the Metropolitan Opera is streaming, free of charge, an opera every night this week. Last night was Bizet's Carmen, the story of a tempting and  tempestuous Andalusian gypsy (more properly, Romani) who lures her soldier/lover Don José into the freewheeling world of a band of smugglers—but just what they were smuggling is not revealed.

Carmen is based on the 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, who traveled to Spain and its region in 1830, where María Manuela Kirkpatrick de Grevignée, the Countess of Montijo, told him a story that became Carmen. Mérimée, also a noted archaeologist and historian, was studying the Romani people and so made the character one of them, of whom he wrote, "Their eyes, set with a decided slant, are large, very black, and shaded by long and heavy lashes. Their glance can only be compared to that of a wild creature. It is full at once of boldness and shyness, and in this respect their eyes are a fair indication of their national character, which is cunning, bold, but with 'the natural fear of blows,' like Panurge" [a crafty character in Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, thought to be about hemp].

"The men generally call themselves grooms, horse doctors, mule-clippers; to these trades they add the mending of saucepans and brass utensils, not to mention smuggling and other illicit practices," Mérimée writes. "The women tell fortunes, beg, and sell all sorts of drugs, some of which are innocent, while some are not."

Dorothy Dandridge as "Carmen Jones"
in the 1954 film adaptation.

When Carmen first meets Don José, “She was wearing a very short skirt, below which her white silk stockings—with more than one hole in them—and her dainty red morocco shoes, fastened with flame-colored ribbons, were clearly seen. She had thrown her mantilla back, to show her shoulders, and a great bunch of acacia that was thrust into her chemise. She had another acacia blossom in the corner of her mouth, and she walked along, swaying her hips, like a filly from the Cordova stud farm. In my country anybody who had seen a woman dressed in that fashion would have crossed himself."

Acacia is the tree from which comes gum arabic, used in incense and pain relievers for centuries. Shakespeare's Othello, the Moor who murders his wife in a jealous rage, speaks in his "One that loved not wisely but too well" speech of dropping tears "as fast as the Arabian trees /Their medicinable gum." This could mean myrrh or gum arabic, both of which drop their incense like tears from a tree.

Don José is soon experiencing drugs, jealousy, and tears. Absconded with by the gypsy women, he says, “Probably the women had mixed in my drink one of the drogues assoupissantes (soporific drugs) of which they know the secret, for I did not wake up till very late the next day."

A young Romani woman. 
Mérimée reports that the gipsies' origins were not in Egypt, as was previously thought, but rather in India, writing, "It appears, in fact, that many of the roots and grammatical forms of the Romany tongue are to be found in idioms derived from the Sanskrit." This holds up: Wikipedia now says, "While it is now widely known that Romanis are ultimately of northwestern Hindustani origin (an area today shared between India and Pakistan), many Romanis did enter Europe via a generations-long migration which included Egypt as one of their last stops before their arrival into Europe." DNA evidence has also confirmed the Romani-India connection.

The Hindustani region borders the Hindu Kush mountains, where cannabis originated. So it is likely that some of the drugs that the Andulisian gypsy women smuggled were cannabis-based. And may be so until this day: According to the website of the Fundación Secretariado Gitano, in the Spanish prison system today the Spanish Romani women represent 25% of the incarcerated female population, while Spanish Romani people represent only 1.4% of the total Spanish population. Of the women inmates serving time for drug trafficking, 93.2% are gitanas. Also, among the Romani population, only 64% have electricity, and over 75% have no sanitation, bath or shower.

The opening scene in La Traviata.
The opera airing tonight through tomorrow is Puccini's La Boheme, based on the Henry Murger’s stories collected in La Vie de Boheme (1882-1861), in which characters puff on narghiles garbed in Oriental costumes. Young Western swells of the time made it part of their education to take a grand tour through the Arab world, checking out harems and hookahs, where the alcohol-eschewing Muslim world had kept the bush of the Hindu Kush alive.

Another streaming this week is La Traviata, based on the play The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. His father Alexandre Dumas, a member of the Club des Haschishins in Paris, penned his character the Count of Monte Cristo as a hashish enthusiast. La Traviata is complete with a band of gypsies and a matador in love with an Andalusian woman. The species Camellia sinensis is the source of black tea, and perhaps a veiled reference to Cannabis sativa in James Joyce's Ulysses.

Author Antonio García Gutiérrez was making "a meager living by translating plays of Alexandre Dumas, père" in Madrid when he found success in 1826 with his play El trovador (The Troubadour), the basis of Verdi's opera Il Trovatore, which also features a gypsy woman (and her daughter), and is on the Met's schedule this week.

And don't get me started on Tales of Hoffman.

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