See study by R. Johnson (1981).
The opera premiered at the Opéra Comique of Paris on March 3, 1875, but the opening run was a failure, the work being denounced by the majority of critics. Shortly after the composer's death only three months later, the production in Vienna (October 1875) began its path to worldwide popularity.
Since the 1880s it has been one of the world's most performed operas and a staple of the operatic repertoire. Carmen appears as number four on Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America.
Bizet’s final opera not only transformed the opera-comique genre that had been static for half a century, it virtually killed it. Within a few years, the traditional distinction between opera (serious, heroic and declamatory) and opera-comique (light-hearted, bourgeois and conversational with spoken dialogue) disappeared beyond recovery. Moreover, Carmen nourished a movement that was to win both celebrity and notoriety first in Italy and then elsewhere: the cult of realism known as verismo.
The early death of Bizet and the negligence of his immediate heirs and publisher lead, as with most of Bizet’s operas, to major textual problems for which scholars and performers only began to find solutions since the 1960s.
The story is set in Seville, Spain, circa 1830, and concerns the eponymous Carmen, a beautiful Gypsy with a fiery temper. Free with her love, she woos the corporal Don José, an inexperienced soldier. Their relationship leads to his rejection of his former love, mutiny against his superior, and joining a gang of smugglers. His jealousy when she turns from him to the bullfighter Escamillo leads him to murder Carmen.
Camille du Locle, the artistic director of the Opéra-Comique, commissioned Bizet to write an opera based on Mérimée's novel in early 1873 to be premiered at the end of the year. However, difficulty in finding a leading lady delayed rehearsals until August 1874. Bizet bought a house at Bougival on the Seine, where he finished the piano score in the summer of 1874, and took a further two months to complete a full orchestration.
After approaching the singer Marie Roze, who declined the part, du Locle offered the part to the famous mezzo-soprano Galli-Marié. Financial negotiations over her fees ensued, and she accepted it in December 1873 (she agreed to 2,500 francs per month for four months). She apparently did not know the Mérimée novella.
During rehearsals, du Locle's assistant de Leuven voiced his discontent about the opera's plot, and pressured Bizet and the librettists to alter the tragic ending. De Leuven felt that families would be shocked to see such a "debauched" opera on the stage of the Opéra-Comique which had a reputation as a family-friendly theatre, with many boxes used by parents to interview prospective sons-in-law. The librettists agreed to change the ending, but Bizet refused, which led directly to De Leuven's resignation from the theatre in early 1874.
The librettists had toned down some of the more extreme elements of Mérimée's novella, although it has been argued that this, and Bizet's close involvement in shaping the libretto are more to do with his wish to get closer to the Pushkin source.
Full rehearsals finally began in October 1874. The Opéra-Comique's orchestra declared the score unplayable, and the cast were having difficulty following Bizet's directions. However, the greatest opposition came from du Locle, who liked Bizet personally, but hated the opera. At this stage, the Opéra-Comique was in financial difficulties, leading du Locle to believe the opera would topple the ailing company, which had failed to produce a true success since Gounod's Faust.
The librettists, for whom Carmen "had little importance" (they had four other operas on stage in Paris at that time), secretly tried to induce the singers to over-dramatise in order to lessen the impact of the work. However, much to Bizet's delight, the final rehearsals seemed to convince the majority of the company of the genius of the opera.
In the audience were Gounod, Massenet, d'Indy, Delibes and Offenbach. According to Halévy's diary, the premiere did not go well. Although there were curtain calls after Act I, and the entr'acte to Act II and Escamillo's song were applauded, with the exception of Micaëla's aria in Act III, the Acts III and IV were greeted with silence. The critics were scathing, claiming that the libretto was inappropriate for the Comique. Bizet was also condemned by both sides of the Wagnerian debate, Ernest Reyer and Adolphe Jullien criticising him for not sufficiently embracing Wagner's style, while others condemned him for making the orchestra more important than the voices.
However, a few critics, such as Joncières and the poet Théodore de Banville, praised the work for its innovation. Banville lauded the librettists for writing characters that were more realistic than those normally seen at the Opéra-Comique. Nevertheless, with the negative reviews, the opera struggled to make 48 performances in its first run. Towards the end of the run, the management was giving away tickets wholesale in a vain attempt to fill the seats.
Despite the critical reaction, the principals enjoyed successful careers, with Galli-Marié re-creating her portrayal of the title role in the first performance in Italy (Naples) in 1879, in Spain and England, and then from 27 October 1883 in Paris again.
Bizet did not live to see the success of his opera: he died on June 3, just after the thirtieth performance. The day before his death he signed a contract with the Viennese Imperial Opera for the production of Carmen. Before long three leading composers in Europe would be counted among his admirers : Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Nietzsche (in The Case of Wagner) hailed Bizet and exalted the exotic elements of the score, as well as its structural clarity; "it builds, organizes, finishes".
At the second production in Vienna in 1875, the public had no stake in the traditions of the Opéra-Comique or the genre and on the home turf of German music nothing recalled Wagner in the least, so they were able to appreciate Carmen on its own terms. Following the well-received run in Vienna, the opera was seen in 1876 in Brussels (February), Antwerp (April) and Budapest (October); by 1878 it was being performed in St Petersburg, Stockholm, London, Dublin, New York and Philadelphia. After the 1883 revival in Paris, it swiftly became popular there as well, reaching its 500th performance on 23 October 1891 and the 1,000th on 23 December 1904. Over the following century, it has remained part of the standard operatic repertoire.
Although the title role was written for a mezzo-soprano, some famous sopranos (including Leontyne Price, who also overcame institutionalized racism along the way) have performed and recorded the role. In addition, contraltos have also portrayed Carmen, though not as often. The singer must not only have a great range, capable of frequently going to the bottom of her voice range, but also exhibit superior dramatic skills in order to portray Carmen's complex character, and be able to dance convincingly on stage.
Several pieces from this opera have become popular away from the stage. The Flower song, the Toréador's Song and the Habanera are favourites with singers. Two suites for orchestra were arranged by Fritz Hoffmann: the first consisting of the prelude and entr'actes, and the second of vocal numbers arranged for orchestra.
Carmen was extremely innovative in its drama: alternating comic or sentimental scenes found traditionally in opera-comique with stark realism. The initial controversy, even before the premiere, was about shocking aspects of the story, despite Bizet and his librettists' toning down of some elements of Mérimée’s novella. The trouble with Carmen was that, while retaining the externals of the genre, such as spoken dialogue, it not only took its characters from proletarian life – a corporal, a promiscuous gypsy, a sporting idol – it dared to treat their emotions with absolute seriousness.
Carmen will always be a challenge for great singing actresses. Her availability to men (as she explains in the Habanera) is strictly on her terms. She is fatalistic and hedonistic, living entirely in the present moment. Carmen's fatalism is well illustrated in the card-playing scene, much revised by Bizet, in which she accepts the premonition of death. In Act I her reply to Zuniga when she is arrested is a translation from the Pushkin poem: "J’aime un autre et je meurs en disant que je l’aime", and anticipates phrases she will use at the end of the opera. Carmen is a woman prepared to give herself completely, aware of the magnitude in human terms of this decision but in turn she will demand the same from the one to whom she surrenders herself. Portrayed as "free, independent and mistress of all her decisions", Carmen’s strength and capacity of expression, her calm acceptance of her fate, and especially of her death show her "interior security, strength of temperament, personality and beauty...".
José is ill-suited to Carmen's whims, expecting fidelity; unlike the other males in the opera who perceive her as available to them. He dreams that he can possess and redeem her. Don José’s descent and moral disintegration from simple and honourable soldier to a murderous brigand is plotted by librettists and composer “from connivance at Carmen’s escape, through desertion, armed resistance to an officer and smuggling, to murder”.
Carmen and José's scenes together represent the stages of their relationship. The seguidilla in Act I is the seduction, the second in Act II is the conflict, and the last in Act IV - which the librettists by a brilliant stroke moved from the mountains (Mérimée) to outside the bullring - is the tragic resolution.
Micaëla and Escamillo, shadowy figures in the novella, are not as developed as the two protagonists; they would not be out of place in a traditional opera-comique. Micaëla corresponds to José's character and psychological environment before he met Carmen, while Escamillo represents a more typical male attitude to Carmen. Micaëla's music is developed from Gounod's lyric operas, whereas Escamillo is a musical cousin of Ourrias in Mireille. In Escamillo's 'Toreador Song' (where the singer is asked to sing 'fatuously') Bizet knew that the song would be popular, but commented "They want their trash, and will get it".
When asked if he would visit Spain to research his score, Bizet replied "No, that would only confuse me." Bizet worked elements of Spanish music into the score; keeping the music obviously French. Several pieces, especially the Seguidilla and the Gypsy Song make use of the elements of flamenco music. Also, the Act IV entr'acte seems to be influenced by a Spanish song by Manuel García, incorporating elements of gypsy music.
Bizet worked several popular Spanish songs directly into the score. These include El arreglito which became the habanera, and the folk-song Carmen impudently sings when interrogated by Zuniga; both written by Yradier. The habanera was written to replace an aria that Galli-Marié disliked, and Bizet supposedly wrote over ten revisions.
Bizet uses a very slight leitmotif system, preferring to use new material for each musical scene. There are two motifs associated with Carmen. The first is the Carmen Fate motif, and owes its augmented 2nds to Spanish music. It is ominously heard directly after the Prelude and prefigures the ending of the opera. It is heard in this form when Carmen chooses José as her lover, at the beginning of the Flower Song, and during the opera’s final moments. It is also heard, in a faster form, at the entrance of Carmen. This theme is more often heard in the strings, and is used when the slower version would stop the flow of the music. It is notably heard during the card playing scene (No.20).
The other theme associated with Carmen represents her influence over José. It is heard after José is chosen as Carmen’s lover, and when Carmen is taken away by the police to José and Zuniga. In a sequence cut from the original edition, placed in the frenzied chorus of women in Act I, the two themes are played contrapuntally.
The orchestration has been much praised; Richard Strauss advised young composers "if you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and every rest is in its proper place".
Bizet’s original design of Carmen had dialogue in place of recitative. After Bizet's death, the musical community felt it would be more appreciated in the form of Grand Opera rather than opéra comique. Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud wrote recitatives for the Vienna premiere performance in 1875, that were used up until the 1960s. (Except at the Opéra-Comique, where the dialogue Carmen remained in repertory into the 1950s.) They are today seen as damaging to the work as a whole. The recitatives destroyed Bizet’s careful pacing, and disrupted the process of characterization significantly. The recitatives do seem to be coming back into fashion in large theaters, such as the Metropolitan, where spoken dialogue is difficult to project.
A new edition in 1964 edited by Fritz Oeser claimed to have restored Bizet’s original vision by including material previously cut from the premiere as well as restoring the dialogue. Unfortunately, Oeser did not realise that a great deal was cut by Bizet himself, and subsequently included several sections that were not required. He also made great changes to the stage directions and rewrote some of the libretto. Today, the only adequate score is a vocal score by Bizet himself, published in 1875. There is still no accurate full score, and each production is judged on the skills of the conductor in choosing a score.
Most recordings since the publication of Oeser edition juggle the Opéra-Comique, Oeser and Guiraud versions. Fruhbeck's 1970 version (pure Opéra-Comique) contains a pantomime scene with Moralés and chorus that was cut from the original production but remained in the score.
In 2003, a recording was made by Michel Plasson that features an earlier variant of Carmen's Habanera ("L'amour est un enfant bohème"), as well as the familiar one.
Other noteworthy recordings feature Plácido Domingo and one of the better-known mezzo-sopranos as Carmen, Chilean Victoria Vergara.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast,|
March 3, 1875
(Conductor: Alphonse Deloffre)
|Carmen, A Gypsy Girl||mezzo-soprano||Marie Celestine Laurence Galli-Marié|
|Don José, Corporal of Dragoons||tenor||Paul Lhérie|
|Escamillo, Toreador||bass-baritone||Jacques Bouhy|
|Micaëla, A Village Maiden||soprano||Marguerite Chapuy|
|Zuniga, Lieutenant of Dragoons||bass||Eugène Dufriche|
|Moralès, Corporal of Dragoons||baritone||M. Duvernoy|
|Frasquita, Companion of Carmen||soprano||Mlle. Ducasse|
|Mercédès, Companion of Carmen||soprano||Mlle. Chevalier|
|Lillas Pastia, an inkeeper||spoken||M. Nathan|
|Le Dancaïre, Smuggler||baritone||Pierre-Armand Potel|
|Le Remendado, Smuggler||tenor||Paul Fleuret ('Barnolt')|
|A Guide||spoken||M. Teste|
|Soldiers, young men, cigarette factory girls, Escamillo's supporters, Gypsies,|
merchants and orange sellers, police, bullfighters, people, urchins.
Note: in the Oeser version, Acts III and IV are played as Act III scene i and Act III scene ii respectively
Moralès and the soldiers are on guard, ("Sur la place, chacun passe"). Micaëla appears seeking Don José, a corporal, but is told by Moralès that he isn't yet on duty, so why doesn't she stay and wait with them? She runs away saying that she will return later. Zuniga and José arrive with the new guard, imitated by a crowd of street-children ("Avec la garde montante").
A bell sounds and the cigarette girls emerge from the factory, greeted by young men who have gathered ("La cloche a sonné"). Finally Carmen appears, and all the men ask her when she will love them ("Quand je vous aimerai?"). She replies that she loves the man who does not love her in the famous Habanera ("L'amour est un oiseau rebelle"). When they plead for her to choose a lover from among them, ("Carmen! sur tes pas, nous nous pressons tous!") she tears a bunch of cassia from her bodice and throws it at Don José, who has been ignoring her, before going back into the factory with the others. José is annoyed by her insolence.
Micaëla returns and gives him a letter - and a kiss - from his mother ("Parle-moi de ma mère!"). José longingly thinks of his home, and reading the letter sees that his mother wants him to return and get married. Micaëla is embarrassed and leaves, but Don José declares that he will marry her.
As soon as she leaves, screams are heard from the factory and the women run out, singing chaotically ("Au secours! Au secours!"). Don José and Zuniga find that Carmen has been fighting with another woman, and slashed her face with a knife. Zuniga asks Carmen if she has anything to say, but she replies impudently with a song ("Tra la la"). Zuniga instructs José to guard her while he writes out the warrant for prison. The women go back into the factory and the soldiers to the guardhouse. To escape, Carmen seduces José with a Seguidilla ("Près des remparts de Séville") about an evening she will spend with her next lover who is "only a corporal"; José gives in and unties her hands. Zuniga returns, and Carmen allows herself to be led away but turns, pushes José to the ground, and as laughing cigarette girls surround Zuniga, she escapes.
It is two months later. Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès sing and dance ("Les tringles des sistres tintaient"). Zuniga attempts to woo Carmen, but she can only think of José, who was demoted and has been in jail since letting her escape, and was released the day before. Lillas Pastia is trying to get rid of the officers, but as the sound of a procession hailing Escamillo passes by outside, the toreador is invited in ("Vivat, vivat le Toréro"). Escamillo sings the Toreador song ("Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre"), and flirts with Carmen, but Carmen tells him that for the time being he needn't dream of being hers. When everyone except Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès have left, the smugglers Dancaïre and Remendado arrive and tell the girls of their plans to dispose of the contraband they have smuggled via Gibraltar (Quintet: "Nous avons en tête une affaire"). Carmen refuses to accompany them, saying to their amazement that she is in love. As José's voice is heard ("Halte là!"), Dancaïre tells Carmen she must try to get Don José to join them. Alone together, José returns a gold coin Carmen had sent him in jail and she orders fruit and wine to be brought. Carmen vexes him with stories of her dancing for the officers but then dances with castanets for him alone ("Je vais danser en votre honneur...Lalala"). During her song the sound of bugles is heard calling the soldiers back to barracks. Carmen's temper flares when José says he must leave, but he makes her listen by producing the flower she threw at him, which he kept while he was in prison and is proof of his love (the Flower Song - "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"). Carmen is unmoved and asks him to join her gipsy life if he really loves her ("Non, tu ne m'aime pas"). Her picture of a life of freedom tempts him but he finally refuses saying he will never be a deserter. He begins to leave when Zuniga enters hoping to find Carmen. Don José draws his sword on his superior officer, but before they can fight the smugglers burst in and disarm both of them. Zuniga is made a prisoner ("Bel officier") and José has no alternative but to flee with Carmen ("Suis-nous à travers la campagne").
The smugglers along with Carmen and José are travelling with the contraband ("Écoute, écoute, compagnons"), but Carmen has tired of José, and does not conceal this, taunting him to return to his village. Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès read the cards ("Mêlons! Coupons!"): Frasquita and Mercédès foresee love and romance, wealth and luxury; but Carmen's cards foretell death for both her and José ("En vain pour éviter les réponses amères"). The smugglers ask the girls to come and charm the customs officers ("Quant au douanier, c'est notre affaire") and everyone goes off, leaving the jealous José to guard the goods. Micaëla arrives with a guide seeking José. She sends the guide away and vows to take Don José away from Carmen ("Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante"). She sees José firing a gun, and hides in the rocks. It was Escamillo whom José had fired at, but when he arrives José welcomes him, until he says he is infatuated with Carmen and tells José the story of her affair with a soldier, not realising José is that soldier. José challenges Escamillo to a knife-fight, but Escamillo fights defensively, infuriating José. They start again and José finds himself at the mercy of Escamillo who releases him, saying his trade is killing bulls, not men. The third time they fight Escamillo's knife breaks, but he is saved by the return of the smugglers and Carmen ("Holà, holà José"). Escamillo leaves, but invites Carmen and the smugglers to his next bullfight in Seville. Remendado finds Micaëla hiding, and she tells José that his mother wishes to see him. Carmen mocks him and at first he refuses to go ("Non, je ne partirai pas!"), until Micaëla tells him that his mother is dying. Vowing that he will return to Carmen, he goes. As he is leaving, Escamillo is heard singing in the distance. Carmen rushes to the sound of his voice, but José bars her way.
It is the day of the contest to which Escamillo invited the smugglers. The square is full of people, with merchants and gipsies selling their wares ("A deux cuartos!"). Zuniga, Frasquita and Mercédès are among the crowd and the girls tell Zuniga that Carmen is now with Escamillo. The crowd and children sing and cheer on the procession as the cuadrilla arrive ("Les voici! voici la quadrille"). Carmen and Escamillo are greeted by the crowds and express their love, Carmen adding that she had never loved one so much ("Si tu m'aimes, Carmen"). After Escamillo has gone into the fight, Frasquita warns Carmen that José is in the crowd ("Carmen! Prends garde!), but Carmen scorns their fears. Before she can enter the arena she is confronted by the desperate José ("C'est toi! C'est moi!"). He begs her to return his love and start a new life with him far away. She calmly replies that she loves him no longer and will not give way - free she was born and free she will die. Cheers are heard from the bull-ring and Carmen tries to enter, but José bars her way. He asks her one last time to come back, but she scornfully throws back the ring that he gave to her ("Cette bague, autrefois"). He stabs her ("Eh bien, damnée") and as Escamillo is acclaimed in the arena she dies. Don José kneels in despair beside her. The spectators flock out of the arena and find José ("Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!"), confessing his guilt over her dead body.
(Carmen, José, Micaëla, Escamillo)
Opera House and Orchestra
|1928|| Raymonde Visconti, |
| Élie Cohen, |
Chœur de l'Opéra-Comique,
l'Orchestre Symphonique de Paris
| Audio CD: Columbia Recording|
(Remastered on Pristine Audio)
|1950|| Solange Michel,|
| André Cluytens,|
Chœur et Orchestre de l'Opéra-Comique
| Audio CD: Naxos Historical|
|1951|| Risë Stevens, |
| Fritz Reiner, |
RCA Victor Orchestra
| Audio CD: RCA Victor Red Seal|
|1959|| Victoria de los Ángeles,|
| Sir Thomas Beecham, |
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
| Audio CD: EMI Classics|
|1964|| Maria Callas,|
| Georges Prêtre,|
Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris
| Audio CD: EMI Classics|
|1963|| Leontyne Price,|
| Herbert von Karajan,|
Vienna Philharmonic orchestra,
Vienna State Opera chorus
| Audio CD: RCA Victor |
|1967|| Grace Bumbry,|
| Herbert von Karajan,|
Vienna Philharmonic orchestra,
Vienna State Opera chorus
| DVD: Deutsche Grammophon|
Cat: 00440 073 4032
|1970|| Grace Bumbry, |
| Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos,|
Chor. & Orch. of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra
| Audio CD: EMI Classics|
|1973|| Marilyn Horne,|
| Leonard Bernstein,|
The Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus
| Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon|
Cat: 0 28942 74402 8
|1975|| Tatiana Troyanos,|
Kiri Te Kanawa,
José Van Dam
| Sir Georg Solti,|
London Philharmonic Orchestra
| Audio CD: Decca|
Cat: 414 489-2
|1977|| Teresa Berganza, |
| Claudio Abbado, |
London Symphony Orchestra
| Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon|
|1978|| Elena Obraztsova, |
| Carlos Kleiber, |
Wiener Staatsoper orchestra and chorus
| DVD: TDK DVD Video |
Cat: 8 24121 00097 4
|1983|| Agnes Baltsa, |
Jose Van Dam
| Herbert von Karajan,|
| Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon|
|1984|| Julia Migenes,|
| Lorin Maazel, |
Orchestre National de France,
Chorus and Children's Chorus of Radio France
(Film - directed by Francesco Rosi)
| DVD: Sony Pictures |
(Carmen (1984 film))
|1988|| Jessye Norman,|
| Seiji Ozawa, |
Orchestre National de France
French National Radio Chorus
| Audio CD: Philips |
Cat: V 72473
| Agnes Baltsa,|
| James Levine, |
The Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus
| DVD: Deutsche Grammophon |
Cat: 00440 073 0009
|2003|| Angela Gheorghiu,|
| Michel Plasson,|
Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse
| Audio CD:EMI Classics|
Note: "Cat:" is short for catalogue number by the label company; "ASIN" is amazon.com product reference number.
Some of these, such as Pablo de Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy (1883) for violin and orchestra, Franz Waxman's Carmen Fantasie (1946) 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.
Ferruccio Busoni wrote a Sonatina (No.6) for piano named Fantasia da camera super Carmen (1920), which uses themes from the opera. There are also two suites of music drawn directly from Bizet's opera, often recorded and performed in orchestral concerts.
In 1943 , in the United States, it was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II into an African-American setting as Carmen Jones, which was a success firstly as a stage production and in 1954 as a feature film, starring Dorothy Dandridge.
In 1983, Carlos Saura made a dance film inspired by the opera, with flamenco dances choreographed by Antonio Gades, in which the modern dancers re-enact in their personal lives the tragic love affair up to its lethal end.
In 1984, a film version was produced. This motion picture stars Julia Migenes as Carmen and Plácido Domingo as Don José, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Orchestre National de France. The powerful cast and traditional direction made it popular with audiences. It was the first film version to use Bizet's spoken dialogues in place of the recitatives. The entire soundtrack was released on CD.