About the Show
Music by: Georges Bizet
Libretto by: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Havléy, after the novella by Prosper Mèrimèe
Premiere: Paris Opèra Comique, March 3, 1875
ACT I. Corporal Moralès and the soldiers while away the time watching the passers-by, among whom is Micaëla, a peasant girl from Navarre. She asks Moralès if he knows Don José, and is told that he is a corporal in another platoon expected shortly to relieve the present guard. Avoiding their invitation to step inside the guardroom, Micaëla escapes. A trumpet call heralds the approach not only of the relief guard but also of a gang of street urchins imitating their drill. As the guards are changed, Moralès tells José that a girl is looking for him. Zuniga, the lieutenant in command of the new guard, questions Corporal José about the tobacco factory. A stranger in Seville, Zuniga is apprehensive of the dangerous atmosphere of the locale.
The factory bell rings and the men of Seville gather round the female workers as they return after their lunch break. The gypsy Carmen is awaited with anticipation. When the men gather round her, she tells them love obeys no known laws (Habañera: "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle"). Only one man pays no attention to her -- Don José. Carmen throws a flower at him. The women go back into the factory and the crowd disperses.
Micaëla returns, bringing news of José's mother. She has sent Micaëla, who lives with her, to give him a letter ("Parle-moi de ma mère"). José feels that his mother is protecting him from afar. When he starts to read her letter, Micaëla runs off in embarrassment since it suggests that he marry her. At the moment that he decides to obey, a fight is heard from within the factory. The girls stream out with sharply conflicting accounts of what has occurred, but it is certain that Carmen and one of her fellow workers quarreled and that the other girl was wounded. Carmen, led out by José, refuses to answer any of Zuniga's 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 (Séguedille: "Près des remparts de Séville"). 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. Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès entertain Zuniga and other officers ("Les tringles des sistres tintaient"). Zuniga tells Carmen that José has been released this very day. A torchlight procession in honor of the bullfighter Escamillo is heard, and the officers invite him in. He describes the excitements of his profession, in particular the amorous rewards that follow a successful bullfight (Toreador's Song: "Votre toast"). Escamillo then propositions Carmen, but she replies that she is engaged for the moment. He says he will wait. Carmen refuses to leave with Zuniga, who threatens to return later.
When the company has departed, the smugglers Dancaïre and Remendado enter. They have business in hand for which their regular female accomplices are essential ("Nous avons en tête une affaire"). Frasquita and Mercédès are game, but Carmen refuses to leave Seville: she is in love. Her friends are incredulous. José's song is heard in the distance. ("Dragon d'Alcala"). The smugglers withdraw. Carmen tells José that she has been dancing for his officers. When he reacts jealously, she agrees to entertain him alone (Finale: "Je vais danser en votre honneur"). Bugles are heard sounding the retreat. José says that he must return to barracks. Stupefied, Carmen mocks him, but he answers by producing the flower she threw and telling her how its faded scent sustained his love during the long weeks in prison (Flower Song: "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"). But she replies that he doesn't love her; if he did he would desert and join her in a life of freedom in the mountains. When, torn with doubts, he finally refuses, she dismisses him contemptuously. As he leaves, Zuniga bursts in. In jealous rage José attacks him. The smugglers return, separate them, and put Zuniga under temporary constraint ("Bel officier"). José now has no choice but to desert and join the smugglers.
ACT III. The gang enters with contraband and pauses for a brief rest while Dancaïre and Remendado go on a reconnaissance mission. Carmen and José quarrel, and José gazes regretfully down to the valley where his mother is living. Carmen advises him to join her. The women turn the cards to tell their fortunes: Frasquita and Mercédès foresee rich and gallant lovers, but Carmen's cards spell death, for her and for José. She accepts the prophecy (Card Song: "En vain pour éviter les réponses amères"). Remendado and Dancaïre return announcing that customs officers are guarding the pass: Carmen, Frasquita, and Mercédès know how to deal with them ("Quant au douanier"). All depart. Micaëla appears, led by a mountaineer. She says that she fears nothing so much as meeting the woman who has turned the man she once loved into a criminal ("Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante"). But she hurries away in fear when a shot rings out. It is José firing at an intruder, who turns out to be Escamillo, transporting bulls to Seville ("Je suis Escamillo"). When he refers to the soldier whom Carmen once loved, José reveals himself and they fight. Carmen and the smugglers return and separate them. Escamillo invites everyone, especially Carmen, to be his guests at the next bullfight in Seville. José is at the end of his tether. Micaëla is discovered, and she begs José to go with her to his mother but he furiously refuses ("Dût-il m'en couter la vie"). Micaëla then reveals that his mother is dying. José promises Carmen that they will meet again. As José and Micaëla leave, Escamillo is heard singing in the distance.
ACT IV. Among the excited crowd cheering the bullfighters are Frasquita and Mercédès. Carmen enters on Escamillo's arm ("Si tu m'aimes"). Frasquita and Mercédès warn Carmen that José has been seen in the crowd. She says that she is not afraid. José enters. He implores her to forget the past and start a new life with him. She tells him calmly that everything between them is over. She will never give in: she was born free and free she will die. While the crowd is heard cheering Escamillo, José tries to prevent Carmen from joining her new lover. Carmen finally loses her temper, takes from her finger the ring that José once gave her, and throws it at his feet. José stabs her, and then confesses to the murder of the woman he loved.
-- Rodney Milnes
By Gene Cropsey, Opera Tampa League
Georges Bizet composed Carmen – the last of his sic completed operas – when he was only 36 years old. Although it ultimately found its place as Bizet’s finest operatic masterpiece, judged by many as one of the greatest operas ever written, it came at the end of a musical career fraught with anxiety and disappointment.
Like most French composers, Bizet shaped his musical skills at the Paris Conservatorie. Having entered at the age of 9, he capped his exceptional student career by winning the coveted Prix de Rome. In 1860, following three relatively unproductive years in that city, he returned to Paris where, for the rest of his life, he faced unrelenting personal and professional setbacks. His opera, Les Pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) premiered in 1863, but garnered little public support and was treated severely by the critics. Bizet went on to complete three more operas during the next decade, but all were received with little enthusiasm. The Parisian critics caustically branded them “Wagnerian.” His operas were premiered only at the smaller Parisian theaters, the elite Paris Opèra having rebuffed him, unwilling to take on a composer it considered a mere beginner.
Throughout his career, Bizet was distressed over his critics’ unwillingness and inability to embrace his music. His failures weighed heavily on him, causing him to develop insomnia and argumentative and nervous disposition, made worse by his neurotic wife and mother-in-law. To make matters more intolerable, he suffered from angina and painful absences of the throat.
“They make out that I am obscure, complicated, tedious.” Bizet once wrote, “more fettered by technical skill than lit by inspiration.” His contemporaries, however – Gounod, Berlioz, Halevy, Saint-Saens and others – took Bizet’s work seriously, recognizing its unique originality.
In 1872, Camille du Locle, co-director of the opéra comique, asked Bizet to collaborate with librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy on a new full-length opera. By this time, Bizet’s health was worsening, but he eagerly accepted, proposing that it be based on Prosper Merimee’s novella Carmen. He knew many French critics were prejudice against him, but when the opera was completed in 1875, Bizet was certain they would at last be satisfied. “This time,” he wrote “I have composed a work that is all clarity and vivacity, full of color and melody.” But once again he was to be disappointed.
Opéra comique was an operatic genre designed to appeal to families of bourgeois respectability who wanted to be artificially entertained. But with Carmen, Bizet transformed it by vividly expressing the torments inflicted by sexual passion and jealousy. It proved to be too much for the Parisian audience, who were shocked by the blatant expression of sexual desire, girls smoking and fighting on stage, and the brutal murder.
The critics responded more fiercely than ever. They branded it “educated noise,” “audacious Wagnerism,” “shocking and repugnant.” One proclaimed that the stage of the Opéra comique was no place for “characters who have sunk to the sewers of society.” Librettist Jean Dupin groused, “Your Carmen is a flop, a disaster! The music never stops. That’s not music! That’s not an opera! A man meets a woman. He finds her pretty…He loves her, she loves him… She doesn’t love him anymore… He kills her… And you call that an opera? It’s a crime, do you hear me, a crime!”
Three months after the premiere, Bizet died believing his work a failure. Later that year, Carmen was produced in Vienna with the spoken dialogue replaced by recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud. Soon, Carmen began to conquer the entire operatic world, with audiences, critics and musicians singing its praises. Richard Strauss believed it to be unrelieved perfection. “If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen.”
Although he composed Carmen in the traditional framework of aria and spoken dialogue in an era dominated by Verdi and Wagner, Bizet achieved a vital and original music drama whose naturalism and tragic power profoundly influenced the realistic verismo composers to follow, notably Mascagni and Puccini.
Carmen had its New York premiere, sung in Italian, on Oct. 23, 1878, at the Mapleson Academy of Music. The Metropolitan Opera first performed it, also in Italian, on Jan. 5, 1884.