Carmen is a French opera by Georges Bizet, with text by Meilhac and Halévy, based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée. Its first production was in Paris in 1875. During its time, the opera was considered a failure, denounced as “immoral” and “superficial.” However, today it is often seen as the greatest romantic opera of the era and is very popular.
- Zuniga, lieutenant (Basso).
- José, sergeant (Tenor).
- Morales, sergeant (Basso).
- Escamillo, bull fighter (Basso).
- Dancairo and Remendado, smugglers (Tenor and Baritone).
- Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes, gypsies (Soprano and Mezzo-soprano).
- Micaëla, a peasant girl (Soprano).
The sombre action of the opera is enlivened by strong contrasts of light and shade. In the first act: street scene in Seville, march of the watch, the commotion of the cigarette girls and street fight; in the second act: life among the gypsies and dance; in the third act: the picturesque groups of the smugglers; in the fourth act: the procession of bull fighters. The lyric element is represented by the blonde and gentle Micaëla, a youthful companion of José and messenger from his mother. The whole action is quiet, notwithstanding its charming effects and colouring, and is kept together by the originality of the music, which is beautiful and characteristic of the region in which the opera is set.
The Spanish gypsy Carmen lives only for sensuality. Love drives her from passion to passion. After she has loved many, she is attracted by the sergeant Don José, encompasses him with her wiles, and leads him to mutiny and desertion, so that finally nothing remains for him but to join a band of smugglers of which Carmen is a member. His fate is endurable as long as he retains the love of Carmen, but when she turns from him he is sunk in the depths of despair. Called to the death-bed of his mother, on returning he finds his still passionately loved Carmen before the arena in Seville with the bull fighter Escamillo, to whom she has promised her love if he is the victor at the fight. She is approached by José, who asks her to return to him, and when she coldly repulses him and tries to escape to Escamillo he stabs her to the heart.
Act I. A beautiful square in Seville with bridge. To the left the guard house, opposite a cigarette factory. Micaëla appears seeking José, but is accosted by the impudent soldiers and retires. José approaches with the guard to relieve Morales. The commanding officer is Lieutenant Zuniga. The workpeople emerge from the factory. Carmen appears, wooed by all, with the exception of José, upon whom she has cast her eyes. (Habanera: “Love is a bird.”) Micaëla, who loves José, brings him a letter and greeting from his mother. (Don José: “Tell me what of my mother.”) When she has gone, a tumult takes place in the factory and Zuniga arrests Carmen, who has been threatening her companions with a knife. She is placed in charge of José, who is beguiled by the coquette and he allows her to escape. (Seguidilla: “Near to the walls of Seville.”)
Act II. Evening at a smuggler’s inn. Song and dance of the gipsies (Carmen, Frasquita, Mercedes: “The rattling, ringing tambourine.”). The bull fighter Escamillo arrives and is boisterously greeted. They sing the Toreador song (“To the fight, torero”). Smuggler quintet of Dancairo, Remendado, Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes. Carmen refuses to accompany them, for she is waiting for her adored José, who has been arrested on her account and whose imprisonment has expired. José arrives and is pre-vented from rejoining his comrades. (Canzonetta: “Halt, who goes there.”) Surprised by Zuniga, he draws his sword upon his superior officer; the lieutenant is disarmed by the smugglers and José resolves to fly with Carmen. (Duet and dance, Carmen, Don José: “I will dance in your honour.”)
Act III. A rocky gorge, José arrives with the smugglers (Sextet and chorus: “Listen, comrades”), but Carmen loves him no longer. Her inconstant heart now turns to Escamillo. (Trio, over the cards: “Shuffle, shuffle, cut them, cut them.”) A fight between José and Escamillo is narrowly averted by the smugglers. (Duet: “I am Escamillo.”) Micaëla arrives (Aria: “Here is the smugglers’ stronghold”) and tells José that his mother is dying, and with threats to Carmen he leaves the band.
Act IV. A square before the arena at Seville. Festal procession of the bull fighters. Carmen promises herself to Escamillo if he returns victorious. As she is about entering the arena she is confronted by the pale and despairing José. (Duet, Carmen, Don José: “Is it thou; it is I.”) For the last time he demands her love and fidelity. When she coldly refuses he stabs her to the heart and she expires at the moment that the victorious Escamillo arrives upon the scene.
References: The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.
Popularity and adaptations
Carmen rivals Aida, La Boheme and Don Giovanni as the most popular opera in the standard repertoire. Its overture and arias are familiar to millions around the world, even those who have never attended an opera. In 1915, Cecil B. DeMille directed a 59-minute Silent film version of the opera. In the United States, it was adapted into an African-American setting as Carmen Jones, which has been successful both as a stage production and as a feature film. MTV also made a version, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, starring Beyoncé Knowles as Carmen.
A number of classical composers have used themes from Carmen as the basis for works of their own. Some of these, such as Pablo de Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy (1883) for violin and orchestra and Vladimir Horowitz's Variations on a theme from Carmen for solo piano are virtuoso showpieces in the tradition of fantasias on operatic themes. Other pieces based on the opera include Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen ballet (1967) and Ferruccio Busoni's Sonatina No.6 for piano, the Fantasia da camera super Carmen (1920). There are also two suites of music drawn directly from Bizet's opera, often recorded and performed in orchestral concerts.
- Full opera and English translation from the Aria Database.
- Free eBook of Carmen at Project Gutenberg