Major Operas | Carmen by Georges Bizet | High Romantic

Carmen is the opera that has ensured Bizet’s lasting fame but which, somewhat uniquely, was partly fashioned by pressures from the directorate of the commissioning theatre, the Opéra-Comique. The revenue from this theatre was largely dependent on attracting the bourgeoisie, providing an evening out for chaperoned couples with an eye on marriage.

Thus a setting including a cigar factory, a murder outside a bullring and a tavern inhabited by gypsies somewhat contravened the norm. Bowing to administrative pressure to soften the tone, the character of Micaëla, the good Catholic girl, was introduced to counterbalance the free-living Carmen and her compatriots. The opera was ahead of its time in its introduction of real popular music: the Habanera in Act I where Carmen advocates free love was taken from a book of Spanish-language cabaret songs and the Chanson Bohème and the Seguidilla, among other movements, employ Spanish modes and dance rhythms. The theme which introduces Carmen and accompanies the fateful card scene and her death imitates a gypsy scale. Originally conforming to the Opéra-Comique norm of a mix of spoken dialogue and operatic numbers, it was for a long time preferred in its posthumous adaptation, in which the dialogue was replaced by recitatives. More recently, productions prefer its richer version with the details of the full dialogue retained.

Composed: 1873–74
Premiered: 1875, Paris
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after Prosper Mérimée’s novel

Act I

Micaëla, a country girl, approaches a corporal, Moralès, in Seville and asks where she may find another corporal named Don José. Moralès tells her to wait for the guard to change, but she declines. At midday the girls come out of the nearby cigarette factory for a rest and a smoke. The last to appear is Carmen, a gypsy, who warns her admirers that they are playing with fire. Only José ignores her and she throws a flower to him and the girls return to work.

Micaëla gives José a letter from his mother, together with a symbolic kiss, and then leaves him to read the letter, in which his mother urges him to marry Micaëla. Girls run out screaming with news of a fight in the factory, which spills out into the square. Zuniga orders José to investigate and he returns with Carmen, who refuses to answer any questions. José is ordered to tie her up and take her to prison. Carmen entices him to go dancing at Lillas Pastia’s tavern outside the walls of Seville. Mesmerized, José agrees to help her escape. He unties the rope and, as they leave for prison, Carmen slips away. Don José is arrested.

Act II

The gypsy girls are entertaining the officers in the tavern. Zuniga tells Carmen that José has spent the last month in prison. The great toreador Escamillo arrives with his supporters and replies to a toast with tales of his dangerous profession. Carmen gently brushes off Escamillo’s advances. After he has left, Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado appear and attempt to...

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