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  • Hugh Macdonald

Opéra comique in four acts by Georges Bizet to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after Prosper Mérimée’s novel; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Salle Favart), 3 March 1875.

Carmen a gypsy


Don José a corporal


Escamillo a bullfighter


Micaëla a country girl


Zuniga a lieutenant


Moralès a corporal


Frasquita gypsy


Mercédès gypsy


Lillas Pastia an innkeeper


Andrès a lieutenant


Le Dancaïre smuggler


Le Remendado smuggler


A Gypsy


A Guide


An Orange-Seller


A Soldier


The Alcade


Soldiers, young men, cigarette factory girls, Escamillo’s supporters, gypsies, merchants and orange-sellers, police, bullfighters, people, urchins

Setting Seville around 1830

Despite the failure of Djamileh in 1872, the Opéra-Comique directors, Du Locle and De Leuven, invited Bizet to compose an opera in three acts. Meilhac and Halévy were named as librettists and various subjects suggested. It was Bizet himself who put forward Mérimée’s novel Carmen as a subject. The librettists were enthusiastic, but De Leuven was alarmed at the thought of Carmen being killed on stage and other elements unsuitable in what he regarded as a family opera house. He soon resigned, while the project went ahead. Bizet worked on the score in 1873, interrupted by the never completed Don Rodrigue, and at the end of that year Galli-Marié was engaged to sing the role of Carmen. The opera was orchestrated in the summer of 1874, and rehearsals began in September. During the unusually long rehearsal period Bizet had to contend with objections from both the orchestra, who found Bizet’s forthright style of scoring beyond their reach, and the chorus, who were expected to act convincingly as individuals rather than respond in unison as a group. He also encountered the ill-will of Du Locle, who publicly expressed his incomprehension, calling the score ‘Cochin-Chinese’ music, and urged Bizet to tone down the realistic force of the opera. Fortunately Bizet was firmly supported by Galli-Marié and his Don José, Lhérie, so that few compromises had to be made. The most shocking features of the opera were Carmen’s blatant sexuality and her readiness to discard men like picked flowers; also the rowdy women’s chorus who both fight and smoke on stage. To have Carmen murdered on stage at the final curtain was too strong for many tastes.

The opera eventually opened on 3 March 1875, and a vocal score was issued by Choudens at the same time. Despite the notorious response of the press and the evident outrage of many in the audience, Carmen was not truly a failure. It ran for 45 performances in 1875 with three more in 1876, sustained partly by its reputation as a shocker and by the appalling misfortune of Bizet’s death on the night of the 33rd performance, 3 June 1875. Discerning musicians, such as Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky, recognized its force and originality from the first. Parisian managements, however, kept clear of the work until 1883, by which time it already enjoyed world success. This grew from a production in Vienna in October 1875 in a version for which Guiraud adapted the dialogue as recitative. The opera quickly spread to many cities all over Europe and beyond, often with Galli-Marié in the title role. Both Brahms and Wagner expressed admiration, and Nietzsche issued his famous assertion that it was the perfect antidote to Wagnerian neurosis.

Carmen has remained one of the most frequently performed operas in the entire repertory. Many great singers have been associated with its leading roles. The orchestral suite drawn from the opera is often played, and in 1954 it extended its currency in a film version, Carmen Jones. For three-quarters of a century it was regularly played not as an opéra comique with dialogue, as Bizet wrote it, but with the Guiraud recitatives. It is now played almost everywhere in opéra comique format, although the edition on which modern performances rely, that of Fritz Oeser published in 1964, has aroused bitter controversy since it includes a quantity of music that Bizet himself rejected in his own edition of the vocal score published in 1875. That first edition, published by Choudens, is exceedingly rare, for it was replaced at an early stage by the first of many corrupt editions from the same house.

The prelude to Act 1 introduces three themes from the opera: the energetic corrida from Act 4 makes a noisy, vigorous opening in A major. This switches directly to the famous Toreador Song, from Act 2, in F. A fuller reprise of this melody has an ingenious modulation back to A for a return of the opening music. The prelude has a separate second part which introduces a strong note of tragedy with the chromatic motif associated both with fate and with Carmen throughout the opera. This links directly to the first scene on a strong diminished 7th.


Act 1 A public square in Seville; a tobacco factory on the right faces a guardroom on the left with a covered gallery in front

Some soldiers watch people coming and going in the square (‘Sur la place, Chacun passe’). Micaëla shyly enters, looking for a corporal by the name of Don José. Moralès, a sergeant, tells her that he belongs to a different company but begs her to wait with them with the assurance that she will be in safe hands. She evades their entreaties and runs away. This introductory scene begins and ends according to convention with the same music, a picturesque chorus with an inner dominant pedal. In between, Bizet moves swiftly through many keys and with many nuggets of melody, including the playful military tune for ‘Il y sera’, a tune which Micaëla shares with the soldiers. Moralès then sings some couplets, ‘Attention! Chut! Taisons-nous!’, which were retained for 30 performances in 1875, then dropped. They serve to fill the space between Micaëla’s exit and Don José’s arrival, for a trumpet-call is heard, announcing the changing of the guard. Two piccolos and a chorus of urchins (‘Avec la garde montante’) provide accompaniment. A solo violin and solo cello in canon provide background for the mélodrame in which Moralès tells José that a girl was asking after him. The guard moves off, leaving José with Zuniga, the lieutenant.

In dialogue José tells Zuniga about the cigarette girls who will shortly return to the factory after lunch; he also explains that he is from Navarre and that Micaëla, a 17-year-old orphan, has been brought up by his widowed mother. The factory bell rings and a crowd gathers to watch the girls go by (‘La cloche a sonné’). José shows no interest. The girls’ chorus is placid and seductive. But when La Carmencita (Carmen) arrives with a flower in her mouth and a following of admirers the music takes a more angular turn, echoing the theme of fate already heard at the end of the prelude. In some couplets (the famous Habanera, ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’), Carmen expounds her view of love as something to be seized when it passes: ‘If I love you, take care!’. Bizet borrowed the melody from a song by Iradier but transformed it with his inimitable harmonic style and the haunting habanera rhythm. The fate theme is forcefully heard as Carmen breaks out of the throng and approaches José, who has remained apart from the others, busy with his rifle primer. She throws a flower at his feet. He is transfixed by this provocative gesture. The girls go into the factory and the crowd disperses, leaving José alone. He picks up the flower but hides it hurriedly when Micaëla comes up. She has brought a letter and some money from his mother and, as she shows in a deeply affecting duet, a kiss. José asks her to return the kiss. The duet’s enchanting stream of melody is interrupted in the middle by his sudden fear of a ‘demon’ whose meaning Micaëla does not grasp. His mother’s letter urges him to marry Micaëla, who leaves while he is reading it to run some errands for his mother.

Suddenly there is an uproar in the factory. The girls rush out to tell Zuniga of a fight between Carmen and another girl. Zuniga sends José into the factory to restore order; with two soldiers he brings her out (this very lively scene was somewhat shortened by Bizet, removing a contrapuntal combination of José’s theme with Carmen’s fate theme). In dialogue José reports the fight to Zuniga, who challenges Carmen to respond. She does so by nonchalantly humming a few tra-la-las. Zuniga gives orders for her to be led off to prison and instructs José to conduct her. Left alone with José she attempts to suborn him, assuring him that he will do what she wants ‘because you love me’. She knows he has kept the flower she threw him. In the seguidilla which follows (‘Près des remparts de Séville’) she sings of her friend Lillas Pastia’s tavern and of her taste for free living and loving. The music and Carmen’s behaviour are so seductive that José quickly yields to temptation, especially since she has said that if he loves her, she will love him. In the brief finale which follows at once, Zuniga arrives with the order for her arrest, so José and the soldiers lead her off. She whispers to José to fall when she pushes him. He does so, and in the noisy confusion Carmen escapes.

Act 2 Lillas Pastia’s tavern

The entr’acte, based on Don José’s offstage song in the coming act, is a perfectly crafted divertissement alternating minor and major. The curtain rises on Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès who are sitting with some officers, including Zuniga and Moralès. Gypsy girls are dancing and Carmen suddenly rises to sing ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’ to tambourine accompaniment. The others girls join in and the piece works up to a frenzy of noise and movement. The landlord is preparing to close, so the officers invite the girls to the theatre. They refuse. Carmen learns from Zuniga that José was stripped to the ranks and sent to prison for a month for allowing her to escape. He was released the day before.

Outside, voices are heard applauding the famous toreador Escamillo. Zuniga invites them in and persuades Pastia to keep serving drinks. To the sound of triumphant C major fanfares Escamillo appears and immediately launches into his couplets, the famous Toreador Song ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’, the main melody of which has already been heard in the prelude. Everyone joins in the refrains. Escamillo finds himself next to Carmen, but she rebuffs him saying that for the moment she is not available. The soldiers leave, although Zuniga tells Carmen that he will be back in an hour. The three gypsy girls are left with Pastia, who reveals that the smugglers Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado have arrived. Pastia calls them in and they unveil their plan in a brisk quintet (‘Nous avons en tête une affaire’), whose pace and lightness are breathtaking, especially since the two smugglers are stock comic figures from opéra comique in a scene of intrinsic comedy. But Carmen tells the others that she cannot join them on their smuggling expedition since she is in love. She has no sooner told them that she is awaiting the soldier who went to prison for setting her free than José’s voice is heard.

They leave Carmen, urging her to bring José to join them the next day. Before their duet begins, Carmen orders food and drink, and even tests José’s jealousy by telling him that she was dancing with Zuniga not long before. José quickly declares his love, while Carmen promises to repay her indebtedness to him. The duet begins with Carmen taking her castanets (in the first text she breaks a plate and simulates castanets with the pieces) and singing another of her seductive Spanish songs, dancing now to make up to José. The song, entirely diatonic, also serves as foreground to offstage bugles sounding the retreat, a compelling dramatic moment since José is torn between Carmen’s alluring humming and his military duties. When he says he has to go, Carmen taunts him, saying he does not love her. To prove her wrong he draws the crumpled flower from his uniform and sings the Flower Song (‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’), an ecstatic, beautifully scored outpouring of love. But instead of the duet ending conventionally as a climax of shared passion, Carmen continues to doubt and test José’s love by urging him to join her and her friends in the mountains. José refuses, and bids her a final farewell.

Suddenly there is a knock; Zuniga bursts in. He taunts José and orders him to leave. José stands firm and a clash of swords is only avoided by Carmen’s summons to the smugglers who suddenly appear and disarm Zuniga. He is led away by some of the gypsies while Carmen turns to José to ask if he is now prepared to join them. José has no choice, and as they pick up Carmen’s earlier song about the thrills of mountain life and the lure of liberty, he joins in with gusto. There is no turning back.

Act 3 A rocky place near Seville at night

The entr’acte is an exquisite solo for flute and harp, with other wind and strings joining in. It suggests a Grecian pastoral or perhaps a virginal idyll, quite remote from the hot tempers and fiery passions of Carmen’s Spain. There is no evidence to support the widely repeated supposition that it was originally intended for L’arlésienne, yet its purpose at this point is far from clear.

The curtain rises. To a stealthy march there appear a number of smugglers, heavily laden. Among them are Carmen, Frasquita, Mercédès, Le Remendado, Le Dancaïre and Don José. In comic-opera style (almost entirely homophonic) they sing about the perils of the smuggler’s trade: the rewards are fabulous when nothing goes wrong. Bizet offers a breathtaking series of descending chromatic chords on ‘Prends garde de faire un faux pas!’ Le Remendado and Le Dancaïre go off to reconnoitre, while Carmen and José resume what has evidently been a quarrel. She admits her love is already fading, and when José mentions his mother she suggests he would be better off if he left them now. Carmen says the cards have been telling her that they would ‘end up together’. José seems to be threatening her if she were to betray him. There follows a trio in which Frasquita and Mercédès rather frivolously hope to read their fortunes in the cards.

When Carmen joins them the tone of the music darkens and the fate theme is heard. She immediately turns up cards that foretell the deaths of herself and then Don José, and sings a tragic cantilena (‘En vain pour éviter les réponses amères’) asserting that the cards never lie. Somewhat artificially the others girls resume their lighthearted song, with doomladen interjections from Carmen. The smugglers decide to proceed into the city since the three girls can take care of the three guards on duty (José smarts with jealousy at this suggestion). José is posted nearby to guard their things. To a rousing ensemble in jaunty style, with some effective and very characteristic harmonic twists, the smugglers set off for the city.

Micaëla now arrives at the deserted encampment, led by a guide who seems more frightened than she is. She sings an air (‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’) with prominent parts for four horns which is in essence a prayer for strength. Its sweet sentiment in the outer sections encloses a more dramatic middle section. She espies José and calls out to him, at which he fires his rifle, thinking she is an intruder. She dives for cover, and at that very moment, against all probability, Escamillo enters, hat in hand. The bullet narrowly missed him.

José appears and challenges him. In the duet that follows, Escamillo at once reveals that he has come to find Carmen, with whom he is in love. José, enraged, draws his knife. A fight ensues in which at first Escamillo has José on the ground but spares his life. They resume, and this time Escamillo is floored by José, who is about to strike when Carmen and Le Dancaïre appear on the scene. (Bizet shortened the fight considerably in 1875.) Carmen thus saves Escamillo’s life. The toreador invites them all to his next bullfight in Seville, while José can barely restrain himself. Escamillo leaves to a ravishing version of the Toreador Song in D♭ major scored for four cellos. The smugglers are about to set off when Le Remendado discovers Micaëla hiding. She immediately resumes her great melody from Act 1, imploring José to return to his mother. Carmen too suggests he should go, whereupon in a thrilling burst of defiance José, insane with jealousy, declares he will stay with Carmen, even if it costs him his life. Micaëla then reveals that his mother is in fact dying. This changes his mind. As Escamillo’s voice is again heard in the distance, José and Micaëla rush off.

Act 4 Outside the bullring in Seville

The entr’acte, based on some Spanish songs compiled by Manuel García, is a lively Spanish dance which sets the tone for the final scene. Street sellers are busy calling their wares to the crowd. In the dialogue, Frasquita learns from Zuniga that an order for José’s arrest has been issued but that he has not been found. Frasquita is alarmed for Carmen’s safety. To the lively music that began the prelude a procession begins, culminating in the arrival of Escamillo, acclaimed by all. He and Carmen exchange a brief sentimental duet in which she declares her love for him. The Alcalde takes his place at the head of the procession. Frasquita warns Carmen that José is there in the crowd, but Carmen affects not to be afraid and even waits outside while everyone else enters the bullring. She confronts José boldly, and although he implores her, gently at first, to make a new life with him, she insists that she cannot be untrue to herself and that all is over between them. Although she knows her life is in danger, she never wavers. José’s passionate pleas are in vain. Cries of victory are heard from the bullring. As Carmen moves towards the entrance, José bars her way, and even in the face of such danger she affirms her love for Escamillo. The fate theme is heard ever more menacingly. She throws down the ring José had given her, triggering José’s rage. He stabs her and she falls dead. The Toreador Song is heard off stage. As the screen opens and a triumphant Escamillo appears with the crowd, José stands over Carmen’s body and gives himself up.

Carmen’s success may be attributed to its felicitous inclusion of conventionally comic and sentimental scenes alongside stark realism and a tale of risqué morality. Its exoticism is due to more than just the Spanish setting, for if a tavern and a smugglers’ hide-out were familiar operatic settings, the atmosphere of the bullring and the outrageous behaviour of the cigarette girls brought a new dimension to the operatic stage. Yet much of the opera is not Spanish at all. It belongs to the tradition of French opéra comique, as we can tell both from the dialogue and from the two-verse songs which give the singer an opportunity to present himself to his listeners on both sides of the footlights. Carmen’s Habanera in Act 1 and Escamillo’s couplets, the Toreador Song, are of this kind, both crowned by rousing choral refrains. The depiction of the two smugglers Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado as comic figures belongs to the same tradition. There is also a strong strain of French lyricism derived from Gounod, Bizet’s devoted mentor; Gounod jokingly said that Micaëla’s Air in Act 3, ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’, was stolen from him. It faithfully echoes his style in such works as Roméo et Juliette (on which Bizet had worked as pianist and assistant). So too does José’s Flower Song, which is miraculously touched by Bizet’s genius; Gounod would never have incorporated so fine a solo within an extended duet, as Bizet does. Also derived from Gounod is the character of Escamillo, a first cousin of Ourrias, the braggart cowherd from the Camargue in Mireille, which Bizet also knew well.

Neither Micaëla nor Escamillo is of any importance in Mérimée’s novel. They were introduced by the librettists as balancing characters to make the story convincingly operatic. Micaëla’s devotion to Don José, her purity and her attachment to his dying mother, make Carmen’s personality all the more brazen, although the contrast is not simply one of goodness and badness. Escamillo is the irresistible lure that entices Carmen from Don José, although the bullfighter, unlike the soldier, would never shed a tear over her infidelity.

Above all, Bizet had reached the peak of his inventive powers, bestowing on this score such melodic, harmonic and orchestral richness that every number seems to be shaped to perfection. He had never before had such a strong libretto, and never before did he have such a consistent stream of inspiration at his command. The impact of Carmen was probably felt less in France than in Italy, where demonstrations of jealous passion as violent as Don José’s were a commonplace of the verismo school. French opera never produced another femme as fatale as Carmen, although her capacity to seduce and bewitch her lovers may be traced in some of Massenet’s exotic heroines, Esclarmonde and Thaïs especially. Strauss’s Salome and Berg’s Lulu may be seen as distant degenerate descendants of Bizet’s temptress.

The memorability of Bizet’s tunes will keep the music of Carmen alive in perpetuity, and the title role will always be a challenge for great singing actresses. No other French opera has ever achieved the same status as a popular classic.