Opéra-comique in 4 acts
Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, after Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1845)
First performed: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 3 March 1875
Reception: Disastrous. Now the third most popular opera in the world.
Carmen is based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella about a Spanish soldier, Don José, who falls under the spell of the gypsy Carmen, deserts his regiment, becomes a brigand, and ends up killing her.
We’re in Spain, where sultry beauties dance the fandango on tavern tables, and where matadors prove their manhood in the bullring. Spain, where passion blazes under a blazing sun.
A bustling square in Seville, with a tobacco factory on one side. A company of dragoons watches people hurry by, go, come, meet, greet each other, and jostle each other. Micaëla appears, an innocent country girl looking for a soldier. Aha, thinks Morales, the brigadier, twirling his moustache – but he’s not the soldier she wants. Her brigadier is called Don José. He’s not in this company, but he’ll be along soon. In the distance, we hear the sound of a military march, bugles and fifes. It’s Don José’s company – and leading the way, a gang of little kids, trying to match the dragoons’ pace. “Ta ra ta ta, ta ra ta ta!”
The tobacco factory’s bell rings, and the cigar makers – all of them women, most of them young and pretty – pour out. Young men crowd the square to ogle the girls…but where is the Carmencita? At last she appears.
Mérimée describes her thus:
She wore a very short red petticoat that showed white silk stockings with more than one hole, and cute red morocco shoes tied with ribbons the colour of fire. She spread her mantilla in order to show her shoulders and a large bouquet of cassia flowers that came out of her shirt. She still had a cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, and she was advancing, swinging on her hips like a filly from the Cordova stud. In my country, a woman in this costume would have forced everyone to make the sign of the cross. In Seville, every one cheerfully complimented on her face; she answered each one with her fist on her hip, brazen as the true gypsy woman she was.
She has S.A. – and she knows it. All the young men love her, but when, they want to know, will she love them? “When will I love you? … I don’t know… Maybe never, maybe tomorrow; but not today, for sure!”
She sings her famous Habanera. Love is a wild bird, a gypsy child, that cannot be tamed.
The only man who doesn’t crowd around Carmen is Don José, who’s more interested in making a chain for his pin. “Your pin, really!” exclaims Carmen, piqued that he’s not paying attention to her. “Your pin … the pinnacle of my soul!” She tears off her cassia bouquet and throws it at him. It falls at his feet, while everyone laughs, and the cigar makers mockingly sing the refrain of Carmen’s Habanera. Don José picks up the flower, and inhales its perfume. It struck him like a bullet between the eyes, he tells us, and if there ever was a witch, that woman was one.
Micaëla arrives, bearing presents from his mother: a letter, some money – and a loving kiss. His mother, her guardian, wants him to return home and marry her. The two sing a tender duet, and Micaëla leaves.
There’s a commotion from inside the tobacco factory: Carmen has slashed another woman’s face with a knife. Don José is ordered to take her to prison, but the flower is working its magic. He has fallen in love with her – which she uses to her advantage. He tries to resist; he orders her not to speak, so she sings instead. She’ll meet her lover – a brigadier – at Lillas Pastia’s inn near the ramparts of Seville.
Don José succumbs, and helps her to escape. She flees, while he’s arrested for dereliction of duty.
A month later, at Lillas Pastia’s inn. Gypsy men play the guitar while their women dance on the table or smoke cigarettes with soldiers. Carmen is waiting; tonight Don José will be released from prison. To entertain the crowd, Carmen sings a gypsy song, ending in a wild, fast dance.
A torch-lit procession enters the inn, celebrating Escamillo the toreador’s latest victory in the bullring. The toreador himself arrives, and sings one of opera’s best-loved arias:
He flirts with Carmen, but she’s not interested; he can love her, for all she cares, but he mustn’t think of her loving him. The inn closes, and the gypsies discuss their business: smuggling. To their surprise, Carmen won’t join them; she’s in love.
At last Don José arrives. Why, Carmen wants to know, didn’t he use the file she smuggled into his cell to escape? “I still have my soldier’s honor, and deserting would seem to me a great crime.” His honor, alas, won’t last that evening.
Carmen danced that evening for the officers; now she dances for Don José, accompanying herself on the castanets. While she’s dancing, bugles sound in the distance. It is the retreat, and Don José explains that he must go back to barracks for rollcall. Carmen is furious – but Don José explains that he loves her. He still has the flower she threw at him, which reminded him of her all through his imprisonment.
Carmen isn’t satisfied; if Don José loved her, he would run away with her to the mountains, and become a smuggler. They quarrel, and Don José starts to leave. At that moment, his lieutenant arrives, and orders his underling to leave. The two men fight, but the gypsies disarm the lieutenant, and tie him up. (In Mérimée’s story, Don José kills his officer.) Don José, forced to leave his regiment, becomes a smuggler.
Le ciel ouvert, la vie errante,
Pour pays l’univers, pour loi sa volonté,
Et surtout la chose enivrante,
La liberté ! la liberté !
It’s a dark night. The gypsies have made their camp in a picturesque and wild spot in the mountains. Carmen is growing tired of Don José. She wants to be free and to do what pleases her, but he’s jealous and controlling. He isn’t suited for the life of a smuggler, and she suggests that he goes back to his mother. He tells her that if she talks to him again about separating, and if he doesn’t behave the way he wants her to… What, he’ll kill her?
Carmen turns her back on him, and joins the other gypsy women in reading their futures in the cards. Two foretell happy futures (a handsome young lover, a rich husband who dies)—but she sees a diamond and a spade: death! First for her, and then for him. There’s no escape.
The gypsies leave to deal with a customs agent, leaving Don José to guard the camp. Micaëla arrives, but she’s afraid to make herself known, and hides behind a boulder.
Escamillo also arrives; he tells Don José that he’s fallen in love with Carmen. The two men draw their navajas (knives) and fight. The gypsies, returning, break up the fight. Escamillo invites them all to watch him in Seville, and goes.
The gypsies are also about to depart, when one spots Micaëla behind a rock. She tells Don José that his mother is dying, and wants to see him. He warns Carmen: “Be content, I’m leaving…but we will see each other again.” While he and Micaëla make their way down the rocky path, Escamillo can be heard singing in the distance:
Toréador, en garde !
Et songe en combattant
Qu’un œil noir te regarde
Et que l’amour t’attend.
Carmen listens and leans over the rocks, trying to see Escamillo again.
We’re in another square in Seville, outside the bull ring. There’s a bullfight on to-day, and there’s excitement in the air.
Merchants sell water, oranges, fans, programmes, and lorgnettes. The cuadrilla arrive; the public throw their sombreros into the air as the four toreros pass. They cheer as the alguazils, the chulos and the banderillos, the picadors march by…and, at last, Escamillo. Carmen tells him that she loves him, and will die if she ever loved anyone as much as him. She’s right; she will.
Don José is at large, armed and dangerous. The crowd pass into the arena, leaving the two former lovers alone. He begs her to return to him; he’ll do anything… Without avail. She no longer loves him; she loves Escamillo. While the audience celebrate Escamillo’s victory in the bullring, Don José, crazed with jealousy, stabs Carmen. The crowd pour out of the arena – and see him standing over her body. “You can arrest me,” he tells them; “I killed her.” He throws himself onto the corpse. “Ô ma Carmen! ma Carmen adorée! …”
Carmen is popular. It’s the third most frequently performed opera, and the most performed French opera, in the world. Its popularity, in fact, makes it easy to overlook just how good it is.
It’s a brilliant entertainment that ends in tragedy. Much of the opera is light-hearted: choruses of soldiers, cigarette girls, and big crowds shouting “Olé!”; exhilarating Spanish dances, with castanets; quintets of smugglers praising women’s wiles; and Carmen herself, part seductress, part comedian, a flower between her teeth, her hips swaying sexily, while she laughs and sings. Into this, it mixes the tender sentiment of Micaëla and Don José’s lost love, Don José’s obsessive jealousy, and a brutal murder. While much of Carmen might be fun, it also has a sense of impending tragedy, of inevitable doom.
And the tunes are catchy, pouring out with almost inexhaustible fertility. Half the world knows them.
Open Tintin. There’s a museum guard singing the Toréador song. Turn on the television, and Carmen is advertising everything from fast food to sports and printers. It’s a stalwart of radio stations; at one point, Classic FM, Australia’s classical music network, played highlights from Carmen daily.
A bus station in town plays classical pops (probably to keep young people and criminals away); it’s often the Toréador Song or the Habanera.
It’s ironic, though, that Carmen should be used to keep down crime. The opera failed because it put crims and lowlifes onstage, in a theatre that upheld decent family values.
When Bizet and his librettists Meilhac and Halévy suggested mounting Carmen, the director of the Opéra-Comique was horrified.
“Carmen!” exclaimed Adolphe De Leuven. “The Carmen of Mérimée! Wasn’t she murdered by her lover? And the underworld of thieves, Gypsies, cigarette girls – at the Opéra-Comique, the theatre of families, of wedding parties? You would put the public to flight! No, no, impossible!”
And, worse, Carmen died. “Death – at the Opéra-Comique! This has never been seen, never! Don’t make her die, my young friend, I pray you!”
(Nobody dies in an opéra-comique? What about Auber’s Manon Lescaut? Cherubini’s Medea? What, never? Well, hardly ever!)
The opera wasn’t such a radical break from French tradition; its roots are in opéra comique, grand opera, and the Offenbachiade. Escamillo’s Toreador Song is in the rhyming couplets form familiar from many opéras-comiques (although Bizet himself dismissed the aria as a sop to public taste). The gypsies are a more realistic version of the brigands and smugglers in Auber’s opéras-comiques, while the ensemble “A deux cuartos!” (start of Act IV) is in the line of the market scene in his Muette de Portici. Bizet learnt his brilliant handling of the crowd scenes and choruses from the operas of Meyerbeer, whom he ranked with Beethoven and Mozart; the ensemble in Act I, for instance, is modelled on Act III of the Huguenots. Micaëla is (as Robert Letellier points out) Alice from Robert le Diable. She is the intercession of the mother, trying to reconcile her errant son to virtue. The librettists wrote the books for Offenbach’s witty, racy operettas, some of which feature smugglers, gypsies and brigands, and independent women.
And the opera flopped. Halévy, 30 years later, remembered the fiasco of the première on 3 March 1875:
The entry of Carmen was well received and applauded, as was the duet between Micäela and Don José. As the first act ended there were many curtain calls. Backstage, Bizet was surrounded, congratulated!
The second act, less enthusiasm. It opened brilliantly. The entrance of Escamillo was most effective. But then the audience cooled…surprised, unhappy, ill-at-ease. Backstage, fewer admirers, congratulations restrained. No enthusiasm at all for the third act except for Micaela’s aria. The audience was frigid during the fourth act. Only a few devotees of Bizet came backstage. Carmen was not a success. Meilhac and I walked home with Bizet. Our hearts were heavy.
Just as Carmen disrupts Don José’s orderly life, the opera’s realism shocked audiences. “The libretto must be rewritten,” said the influential critic Félix Clément, “to take away the vulgarity, to remove the realism that doesn’t suit a lyrical work, to make Carmen a light-hearted gypsy and not a fille de joie, to make Don José bewitched with love, but not vile and odious!”
And Meilhac and Halévy had already sanitized the piece. Mérimée’s original story was even less suitable.
Mérimée presented the story as truth, a traveller’s account of his experiences in Spain. He inserts himself into the narrative, meets both Don José (whose life he saves from the police) and Carmen (who wants to cut his throat!), and visits Don José awaiting execution in prison for the murder, where Don José tells him the story that became the opera.
Don José is a notorious brigand who murders several people, including his superior officer and Carmen’s husband. Carmen is a thief and witch. Micaëla doesn’t appear, while Escamillo is based on a minor character, the bullfighter Lucas, one of Carmen’s lovers. By the time Don José kills Carmen, she’s bored with both men and love, and accepts her death fatalistically. People cheat, lie, steal and kill – and the whole story is treated as dispassionately as Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime fiction would depict the world of gangsters and their molls.
And the last chapter is a scholarly analysis of gypsy customs and linguistics. Good luck putting that on stage!
Meilhac and Halévy turned Mérimée’s story into a tragicomedy showing a conventional man destroyed by his love for an unconventional woman.
Carmen is in love with liberty as much as she is with any man, and demands the right to love whom she chooses and do what pleases her. Don José is the man who didn’t love her, wouldn’t look at her, wasn’t interested – and the flower she mockingly throws at him casts a spell that destroys them both.
She seduces Don José and – quite without malice or intent – destroys him. At the start of the opera, he’s a respected soldier with a promising career and a nice girlfriend. (If Carmen hadn’t entered his life, he would have happily married Micaëla, as the tender love duet in Act I shows.) By the end of the opera, he’s betrayed his duty, deserted his regiment, become a smuggler, and killed the woman he loves.
She gradually unmans him until he becomes less than a man: a beast. Remember that Carmen wears red. On one level, it represents her vitality, her passionate nature, and her open sexuality – but it’s also the red that infuriates a bull.
While Escamillo kills the bull in the arena (stabbing it through the heart), the square outside becomes a private arena where Don José – the maddened, goaded bull – kills his tormentor. He becomes both bull and bullfighter.
Carmen’s true match is the bullfighter Escamillo. Both are physically brave, and take risks; Don José is a passive character, acted upon rather than acting. His falling in love with Carmen is as much outside his control as his killing her.
Even when he murders Carmen, he doesn’t want to; he wants her back. He’s the one begging for his life – but begging is the last thing to attract her to a man. It marks him in her eyes as a weakling, and she holds him in contempt. “Strike me or let me pass,” she tells him; she is indifferent. Does she love him? No. Does she love Escamillo?
Je l’aime, et, devant la mort même,
Je répèterais que je l’aime !
She won’t lie to him ; she will be true to herself, and to the liberty she loves.
Don José reaches the end of his tether, and – as other weak men have done – kills her. Carmen – he discovers to his cost – is irresistible.
The French public, though, resisted. Carmen reached 48 performances, often poorly attended, by February 1876 – and wasn’t seen again in Paris until 1883. That time it caught on, and has stayed firmly in the repertoire.
That was ten years after the rest of Europe. It was performed in Vienna in 1875, and was a hit. The Germans loved it. “Here at last for a change is someone with ideas, thank God!” – R. Wagner. Brahms saw the opera 20 times, and “would have gone to the end of the earth to embrace the composer of Carmen”. And Tchaikovsky (who saw it in Paris) thought it “a masterpiece in every sense of the word…one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch”.
Poor Bizet was dead by that time. He suffered a fatal heart attack on 3 June, the day after the opera’s 33rd performance – without ever seeing his masterpiece accepted, or knowing that it would be one of the world’s favorite operas.
- Élie Cohen’s 1928 recording, starring Raymonde Visconti (Carmen), Georges Thill (Don José), Marthe Nespoulous (Micaëla) and Louis Guénot (Escamillo), with the Chœur de l’Opéra-Comique and l’Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. An old recording, but authentic. Columbia Recording Cat: 27809; remastered on Pristine Audio.
- André Cluytens’ 1953 recording, starring Solange Michel, Raoul Jobin, Martha Angelici and Michel Dens, with the Chœur et Orchestre de l’Opéra-Comique. EMI mono CMS5 65318-2 and Naxos Historical 8.110238-39.
- Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1959 recording, starring Victoria de los Ángeles, Nicolai Gedda, Janine Micheau and Ernest Blanc, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. A classic; the two leads aren’t native French speakers, but are idiomatic nonetheless. EMI Classics Cat: CMS567357 2.
- Georges Prêtre’s 1964 recording, starring Maria Callas, Nicolai Gedda, Andréa Guiot and Robert Massard, with the Orchestre du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris. EMI Classics.