Words: Mike Pavitt and April Luescher
Music: Georges Bizet
Written in: Authored Date:

The opera opens in a square outside of a tobacco factory in 1820s Seville. A group of soldiers and their corporal, Morales, reflect on their easygoing lives. Micaëla enters the square and asks Morales if he has seen Don José. The corporal tells her that José will arrive when the new guard relieves the old, and the soldiers offer to entertain her in the guardhouse in the meantime if she'll accept their invitation. She declines, and the soldiers return to watching passers-by. Street urchins imitate the new guard, including José and his lieutenant, Zuniga, as they enter.

A bell rings, signaling a break for the women who work in the tobacco factory. They flood the square to enjoy their cigarettes. Carmen emerges from the crowd, and young men demand to know when the sensuous gypsy goddess will favor one of them with her love. She enigmatically tells them that love is a rebellious bird that they will never tame, a gypsy child that mocks their conventions. José catches her eye, and she teasingly throws him a flower.

Micaëla finds José, bringing with her a letter from his mother suggesting that they marry. Shouts from within the factory interrupt their reverie of life together; Carmen has slashed another worker's face with a knife. Zuniga demands that Carmen explain herself, but she defies him. He orders José to arrest her and take her to prison. On the way, she promises to meet José at Lillas Pastia's tavern if he helps her escape, and, intoxicated by the gypsy, he can't refuse.

Act II
Two months have passed, and Carmen and her friends entertain officers with gypsy songs and dances at Lillas Pastia's. Escamillo, a bullfighter, swaggers in and shares a drink with his admirers. He and Zuniga have their eyes on Carmen, and both declare their love. Flattered, she nevertheless refuses their advances. Zuniga promises to return later that evening, hoping she will have changed her mind. As the tavern clears out, two smugglers enter and ask Carmen and her companions Frasquita and Mercédès to help them with a job that night. She refuses because José, imprisoned for abetting her escape, was just released and could show up at any minute. Just as José arrives, the call sounds from the barracks, and he insists that he has to leave. Upset, Carmen protests that if he really loved her, he would join her and the smugglers that night in the mountains. With impeccable timing, Zuniga arrives to seduce Carmen. In a fit of jealousy, José attacks his lieutenant. The smugglers drag Zuniga away, and José has little choice but to go with them.

In the smugglers' hideout, José and Carmen fight again. Tired of being persecuted, she tells him to leave and then joins Frasquita and Mercédès for some fortune-telling. The cards promise nothing but death for her and José. The leader of the smugglers enters and tells the women that they must distract some customs officials while José keeps watch.

Micaëla, with the help of a guide, arrives at the hideout, hoping to save José. Just when she sees him, he fires on Escamillo, who is also approaching the camp. The bullfighter is looking for Carmen, having heard that she is dissatisfied with her latest lover. Enraged, José nearly kills the bullfighter in a knife fight, which Carmen and the smugglers luckily interrupt. Unfazed, Escamillo invites Carmen and the others to his next bullfight in Seville and takes his leave. Micaëla confronts José, tells him that his mother is on her deathbed, and begs him to come with her. He agrees, but only after vowing to Carmen that he will return.

The day of the bullfight has arrived, and a resplendent Carmen walks to the stadium on Escamillo's arm. Haggard and desperate, José emerges from the crowd and declares his undying love to Carmen. She laughs at him, throwing the ring he once gave her into the dirt. His mind clouded with rage, José stabs Carmen to death and collapses on her body, as cheers for the triumphant bullfighter rise from the stadium.


Carmen occupies a unique place in the operatic repertory. Once the initial shock caused by its first production in 1875 was over, it has never ceased to be one of the half-dozen most popular works wherever opera is performed. And once composers, critics, musicologists and connoisseurs had overcome the feelings of repulsion, contempt, envy or suspicion aroused by that popularity, they too came to appreciate the musical and dramatic skill, the psychological penetration and the sheer human and artistic vitality of the work.

Prosper Merimee's original grim story of low life is at the same social and moral level as that of Dicken's Bill and Nancy Sykes (Oliver Twist had appeared in the year of Bizet's birth) it has a sober, laconic style and the objective attitude to his characters is only superficially relieved by the exotic setting among Spanish gypsies. Although in many ways an ideal story for operatic treatment by late twelltieth-century standards, Carmen was absolutely unacceptable for any representation on the French stage in the years immediately after the Franco-Prussian War, when the moral laxities of the Second Empire were under severe reproof. Merimee's Carmen is a liar and a thief, unscrupulous but fearless, independent and fascinating not simply by her physical charms but by the honesty and violence of her feelings. Bizet and his librettists cannot be blamed for presenting the positive rather than the negative elements in such a character, or for making her a nineteenth-century heroine rather than a twentieth-century anti-heroine. In fact, the most original feature of the work is Bizet's open championing of a character whose very existence implied a defiance of all accepted moral codes of the day and making this character a woman. Flouting legality and morality and still remaining, in however veiled a way, the hero of a work of art had hitherto -been a male privilege.

The clearest verbal revelation of Carmen's character is in the words of the Act 1 Habanera, for which Bizet himself was responsible. But that character is gradually built up in the seguidilla, the final scene in Act 2 and the card scene in Act 3, a superb invention of Bizet and the librettists, giving Carmen for the first time her full tragic grandeur and preparing the listener for the final denouement of the work. It is the essential greatness of Bizet - his own individual kind of greatness - that he was able to convey this wholly unconventional tragic stature without departing front the operatic conventions of the day. No other operatic composers have achieved this except Mozart and Verdi.

The work abounds in choruses, each with its own flavour (soldiers, ragamuffins, smugglers and finally the surging, faceless holiday crowd outside the bullring) but combining to provide a background that pulsates with life, a characteristically Spanish chiaroscuro against which the principals stand in clearly outlined detail. It is this effect of lighting, rather than the use of Spanish rhythms or the suggestion of Spanish themes, that gives Carmen its genuinely Spanish character (Bizet had never been to Spain). And Spanish composers of a later generation, indignant at the 'touristic', 'picture postcard' image of their Country projected by foreign artists, could not always distinguish Carmen from the Spanish 'Rhapsodies' of Glinka, Liszt or Chabrier.

It should have been otherwise with musicians, for that specifically Spanish effect of 'lighting' is in fact achieved by purely musical means, as is Bizet's characterization of the actors in the drama. His use of the orchestra in Carmen had no parallel in his earlier works and was to be singled out for the highest praise by the expert of all experts, Richard Strauss. Bizet Was the first composer to exploit, if not to use, the overstatement of deliberate vulgarity for dramatic purposes, i.e. to suggest contrasting atmospheres.

The whole score of Carmen is alive with subtle points of contrapuntal, imitative writing – often no more than a few bars in the orchestra - which stir memories and hint at associations in the listener's mind and thus serve to give the story musical and dramatic unity. We need only compare the score of Carmen with those of the operas that were soon to be written under the inspiration of Bizet's masterpiece to realize their infinite inferiority from the purely musical point of view.

Carmen has a history, not only a tragic history in the life of the composer but an historical influence in the subsequent development of opera. The personal tragedy is soon told. The Opera-Comique, which accepted the work for production at the beginning of 1875, was by tradition a 'family' theatre where prospective marriages were discussed and introductions took place, and the moral tone of works given there must therefore be irreproachable. Characters who boast that 'les amours de Carmen ne durent pas six mois' or persuade their lover to desert from the family and become a smuggler only to be murdered by him on a public square less than six months later were therefore unthinkable. During the rehearsals Bizet met with almost universal hostility in the theatre on musical as well as moral grounds. Passages were declared by the orchestra to be unplayable, and even after two months rehearsal the ladies of the chorus declared themselves unable to perform the chorus of the cigarette-girls and the subsequent quarrel, in which they were expected to act as well as to sing. At the opening night on 3 March the only things enthusiastically received were the music of Michaela and Escamillo and the bull ring sequences (Jose's Flower Song was too puzzling harmonically to charm this unsophisticated audience). Most of the press notices were hostile, many indignant and some hysterical. There were eventually forty-five performances, with diminishing audiences.

On the night of the thirty-first of these (3 June) Bizet died. Only a few months later, in October, the Vienna production launched the opera on the successful career which very soon became, and has remained, worldwide. The composer's death at the age of thirty-six (possibly from a streptococcal abscess bursting and infecting the heart: the exact cause has been difficult to establish) was a major blow not only to French opera at that time but to future opera goers the world over.

Carmen, January 2011, Nuffield Theatre
Carmen, March 1999, Nuffield Theatre
Carmen, February 1992, Mayflower Theatre
Carmen, March 1978, The Guildhall

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