Personalities | Georges Bizet | High Romantic | Opera

1838–75, French

Out of 30 projected operas, Bizet only completed six but would no doubt have left more had his life not been cut short at the age of 36. Born in Paris into a musical family, he was prodigiously gifted and started lessons at the Conservatoire before he was 10.

He was taught composition by Fromental Halévy, the uncle of Ludovic Halévy (1834–1908), who was the co-librettist both of his first performed work for the stage, the operetta Le Docteur Miracle, and of his last: Carmen itself.

Operatic Beginnings

Le Docteur Miracle, written when the composer was 20, had been preceded by a one-act opéra comique, La maison du docteur. Both show the influence not only of his teacher Halévy, but also of the leading French opera composer of the day, Charles Gounod. After winning the coveted prix de Rome in 1857, Bizet stayed almost three years in Italy and came under the influence of Italian opera. It was a comic Italian libretto by Carlo Cambiaggio that he set as his next stage work, the opera buffa Don Procopio (1859), but this was not performed in his lifetime. Bizet seemed to lack direction.

A Taste for the Exotic

While a lost one-act opéra comique, La guzla de l’Emir (1863) was set in Turkey, Les pêcheurs de perles (‘The Pearl Fishers’, 1863) used Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as its setting and possibly drew its famous Act I duet ‘Oui c’est elle, c’est la déesse’ (‘Yes it is she, it is the goddess’), with its harp and flute accompaniment, from this earlier opera. Here at last was a proper commission for Bizet. Written quickly in 1863, it enjoyed an initial run of 18 performances. It was not revived during the composer’s lifetime but has since entered the repertoire. The director of the Théâtre Lyrique continued to champion Bizet by commissioning a setting of a libretto dropped by Gounod, Ivan IV (1862–65), a work unperformed until 1946. His next exploration of the exotic followed the French fashion for the novels of Walter Scott, in this case The Fair Maid of Perth. La jolie fille de Perth was first given at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1867 and suffered a similar fate to Les pêcheurs de perles, although it has been revived less.

Towards Carmen

The Paris commune interrupted Bizet’s enterprises, but in 1871 the Opéra-Comique offered him a commission for a one-act opera, Djamileh, having rejected his Grisélidis (1870–71). Adapted from Alfred de Musset’s Namouna, Djamileh is set in Cairo. This work established the composer’s reputation at the Opéra-Comique after its premiere in 1872, and he was offered a full-length commission, on condition he used the established librettists Henri Meilhac (1831–97) and Halévy. Much to the dismay of the directorate of the Opéra-Comique, Bizet put forward the idea of an opera based on Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen. Compromises were reached between the librettists, Bizet...

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