ROME—Opera in Italy has always been a raucous affair. It is common to hear elegantly dressed opera aficionados “boo” a soprano if she misses a high note or demand that the tenor sing his lines again if they aren’t satisfied with a performance. So it should come as no surprise that audiences attending Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino theater in Florence became vocal in the opera’s fourth and final act, when the gypsy heroine Carmen is supposed to be killed by her shunned lover Don José.
From the time the opera first opened in early January until it closed this weekend, the audiences’ beef is not that they don’t like the singers’ performances; it’s that they don’t like the director’s altered ending in which Carmen lives and turns the gun on Don José and kills him instead.
The new twist on Georges Bizet's old story, which was first performed in Paris in 1875, was the brainchild of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino theater director Cristiano Chiarot, who thought it was appropriate in the #MeToo climate to draw attention to violence against women and Italy’s endemic problem with domestic violence and femicide.
Italy’s national statistical agency ISTAT reports that one third of all Italian women between the ages of 16 and 70 have suffered physical or sexual abuse in their lives, and more than 50 percent of all women know someone who is currently being abused. More than 100 women are killed each year in Italy (that’s one every three days) by a current or former lover or spouse.
“At a time when our society is having to confront the murder of women, how can we dare to applaud the killing of a woman?” Chiarot told Reuters. “[Our opera] is an attempt to highlight the modern-day abuse and mistreatment of women in Italy where femicide is not an uncommon occurrence.”
Dario Nardella, the mayor of Florence, also applauded the new ending, tweeting that it sent an important “cultural and social message against violence.”
But the opera’s director, Leo Muscato, had to be convinced before he agreed to alter the classic. “The death of Carmen is the engine that drives the opera, why reverse the situation?” he told La Repubblica newspaper. “Then I understood that what Chiarot was calling for was reasonable. The theme of death in the opera has a strong masculine element—the woman must sacrifice herself in order to save her freedom. It is a point of view that today makes no sense.”
But despite the noble gesture to modernize an ultimately violent opera and send a strong message about violence against women, the audience didn’t agree. After the first performance, angry art critics and season ticket holders at the Florence theater expressed dismay and concern that rewriting classics for modern times was “politically, a disaster,” as one critic put it.
During most of the performances, audience members yell “kill her!” at the end of the final act. Those who do support the change are often drowned out by loud booing from the more vocal naysayers.
Critic Massimo Gramellini, writing in Corriere della Sera, sarcastically suggested changing the endings of all operas, from “Madame Butterfly” to “Tosca” to get rid of all of the drama. “The idea that we can modify the impulses of human beings simply by changing the endings of lyrical works opens up fascinating scenarios,” he wrote.
His sentiment that art shouldn’t be altered was echoed by Pietrangelo Buttafuoco in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio who mused, “What’s next? Should we change ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to address suicide, or ‘Othello’ to combat racism?”
Despite the lukewarm response by hardcore fans of the opera, the show sold out every single performance, even though some people came only to protest. Clearly not everyone appreciates a happy ending, but they will certainly remember this one.