CARMEN , one of the three or four most popular operas ever written, premiered in 1875 at the Opera Comique in Paris only three months before the untimely death, at age 37, of its composer Georges Bizet. There is a prevalent myth that the opera was a failure at its first performances, and that this disappointment led to Bizet’s death. On the contrary, while the opera was not a howling success it was reasonably well received and had a run of more than thirty performances. Further, the Vienna Opera almost immediately requested that Carmen be appropriately revised for performance at that house, these revisions being the writing of recitative in place of the spoken dialogue (de rigeur for the Opera Comique) as well as the introduction of a ballet.

Since Bizet had died (of heart disease) by this time, his best friend (and fellow Prix de Rome laureate) Ernest Guiraud undertook the revisions. This Vienna version of Carmen is the rendition almost always heard today in the world’s opera houses which is in a way a pity since musical imperatives have eliminated a great deal of the background information contained in the original dialogue. The Paris version of the opera, moreover, left out much of the action found in the original source, a novelette by Prosper Merimeè. (And, one should mention, added a little; for example, the soprano lead, Micaela, does not appear at all in Merimee’s novelette, having been introduced into the opera simply to provide a soprano prima donna, the title role having been written for a mezzo soprano.) The ballet music, incidentally, was not written by Guiraud, but was taken from earlier works of Bizet, namely the opera La Jolie fille de Perth (Danse bohemienne) and the incidental music to Daudet’s play L’Arlesienne (Farandole). This fourth-act ballet is only infrequently performed.

Tonight’s performance will consist of the most important musical excerpts sung by the four leads: Carmen herself, a gypsy who works in a cigarette factory and also moonlights as a smuggler and a prostitute; Don Josè, a brigadier (corporal) of the Spanish dragoons and a tenor; Micaela, a seventeen-year old girl; and the baritone Escamillo, a toreador of Granada. The four gypsy smugglers, El Dancairo, El Remendado, Frasquita and Mercedes were supposed to be here also, but they were unfortunately detained by customs agents at DIA. This means that some of the most delightful music, ensembles involving these four minor principals and Carmen, cannot be heard. But not to worry, there is plenty of splendid music on tap tonight anyway. This narrative is provided to keep you abreast of all the action. with information taken from the novelette as well as the two versions of the opera.

Before getting to the action, let me point out that the main reason for Carmen’s original luke-warm reaction was its verismo character. The verismo type of opera, featuring real people as characters rather than mythological heroes or at least kings, dukes and other nobility, became popular some twenty years later, with the works of Mascagni, Leoncavallo and, especially, Puccini. So Carmen as an opera broke new ground, and it took a little while for people to get accustomed to it.

Don Josès full name is Don Josè Lizzarraengo. He is a Navararrais Basque of good family, but his hot temper has led him to kill a man during an argument over a game of paume (hand tennis). He is forced to flee to Andalusia (whose capital is Seville) where he enlists in the Spanish dragoons. His cultured background has led to his rapid promotion, to brigadier. Meanwhile, his widowed mother (who does not appear in the opera) has followed him to Andalusia, and brought along the orphaned Micaela, who has been a ward of the Lizzarraengo family for a number of years. The two women settle in a village a day’s journey (by foot) from Seville. It turns out that Josés mother has her heart set on her son’s marrying the innocent, and beautiful, Micaela who always presents herself in typical Navarraise fashion, blue skirt and long braided hair.

We begin with the overture, which, as was the custom in those days, consists of musical selections from the opera (three in this case). First we hear a sprightly dance in 2:4 time which occurs again twice during the first scene of the fourth act as the crowd gathers for the bullfight. This is followed by the famous Toreador theme, in march time, from Act II (reprised in Acts III and IV). Finally, the music modulates to the sinister fate motif which is heard many times in the opera, most notably in Act I when Carmen first speaks to Josè; in Act II, before José’s great aria, the so-called "Flower Song;" and again in Act IV just prior to the last, fatal, meeting between José and Carmen. The same motif is speeded up, into sixteenth notes, allegro (rather than eighth notes, andante) and serves as a motif of Carmen herself, heard for the first time just before her initial entrance. In his use of motifs, Bizet was following the lead of his contemporary, Richard Wagner, venturing far beyond anything existing up to that time in French opera (or, for that matter, in Italian opera).


The first act takes place in a village square in Seville in 1820. On one side of the stage is a guardhouse, where the officer Morales and his men hang out, killing time by smoking, gabbing and watching the passing crowd. On the other side is the facade of a cigarette factory where only women are hired, one of the reasons being that during the excruciatingly hot Andalusian summers they generally work topless. It is close to noon and we may presume that it is not summer, since the female chorus always appears fully clothed, at least in the performances I have seen.

Soon Micaela appears, seeking Don Josè. She approaches the guardhouse, and after she refuses some indecent propositions of Morales he informs her that José is a member of a different company which will soon be appearing, for the guard changes at noon. She leaves, promising to return.

At this point, the changing guard marches in led by Capt. Zuniga and accompanied by a group of ragamuffins, playing soldier and marching alongside the real soldiers. Before the old guard marches off, again accompanied by the ragamuffins, Morales tells José of Micaela’s visit.

It is now lunchtime, and the cigarette girls exit the factory, singing about the joys of smoking cigarettes. The men, lounging in the square, flirt idly with the girls, but mainly express their interest in seeing Carmen who now appears and sings of her philosophy of (free) love in a famous aria, the Habanera . This is not really a Cuban melody, as its name suggests, but is taken from a popular Spanish song of the time.


Carmen brazenly flirts with Josè, and throws him a flower. He continues to work on his cartridge belt (or saber chain, depending on the version of the opera), and pretends to ignore Carmen, but the fate motif tells us the truth. When Carmen leaves, José picks up the flower and tucks it in his tunic.

Now Micaela appears, with a letter from Josè’s mother.


Micaela leaves while José reads the letter which evidently urges him to marry Micaela which he promises to do, despite that witch (i.e. Carmen) and her flowers! But just then, screams are heard from inside the cigarette factory, and the female chorus streams out in a panic. It seems that Carmen and another of the factory workers, a certain Manuelita, have had a fight. It all began with Manuelita’s saying she had seen a pretty donkey which she planned to buy and keep in her room. Carmen, in her own inimitable fashion, asked Manuelita why she needed a donkey; she could always, after all, travel on her broom! Manuelita’s response was that Carmen could ride the donkey when the soldiers took her off to jail! Whereupon the two young ladies began to fight, rolling on the floor and pulling each other’s hair.

Well, the upshot is that Carmen is summarily judged to have struck the first blow, and Capt. Zuniga remands her to jail in charge of, needless to say, Don Josè. According to Merimee’, Carmen first attempts to bribe Don Josè with a magic stone which purportedly carries aphrodisiac power. Failing this, she claims to be a Navarraise, somehow having guessed José’s background. Only then does she offer her love in exchange for her freedom in the famous aria known as the Seguidilla, another classic Spanish melody.


Two months have passed. José has been imprisoned and degraded in rank for allowing Carmen to escape, but he has just been released. We first hear the entr’acte consisting mainly of the delightful tune "The Dragoon of Alcalà" which a little later José sings as he approaches Lillas Pastia’s tavern/whore house where Carmen is waiting for him. Why Alcala’? Well, while Josè was in prison (we learn from Merimee’) Carmen has sent him a loaf of the famous Alcalà bread (Alcalà is a village in southeastern Spain) containing a file and a gold piece which he is supposed to use to effect his escape. Josè however chooses to do the honorable thing and serve out his sentence. Immediately following the entr’acte, Carmen sings the Gypsy song, introduced into the opera in order to provide authentic local color. It certainly contributes nothing to the plot.


At this point a torchlight procession approaches the inn. The crowd is escorting the famous toreador Escamillo, who proceeds to sing the most well-known piece of music in the opera and, indeed, possibly in all opera.


Upon finishing his song, Escamillo spies Carmen and immediately propositions her. However, she is now in love with Don Josè, and repulses the toreador. Capt. Zuniga is also at the tavern, hoping for Carmen’s favors, but he also is repulsed.

Both would-be "suitors" leave, and there follows a quintet sung by Carmen and the four gypsy smugglers detained at DIA. It seems that El Dancairo and El Remendado, the leaders of the smugglers, have planned a little job, and need some help from the three women (Carmen, Frasquita and Mercèdes) for, as they confide:

We humbly do confess, and respectfully suggest
That for cheating, robbing, trickery, why women are the best!

Carmen, however, refuses to participate, declaring to her incredulous accomplices that she is in love. Their reply to this is to suggest that she recruit Josè for the smugglers’ band:

It’s surprising, but still, it’s not the first time
That you would combine some loving with crime.

Carmen takes this under consideration, but suddenly Josè appears, singing his Dragoon of Alcalà air, and flies to the arms of the waiting, rapturous Carmen.


(Carmen’s reference, in this duet, to Josè as a "canary" is an allusion to the yellow tunics worn by the Spanish Dragoons.) Suddenly, there is a rapping on the door of the inn; it is Zuniga, who has returned looking for Carmen, evidently hoping that she has changed her mind (remember, she sent him away earlier). He is flabbergasted to find Josè with her, especially since the retreat has sounded, and chides Carmen for consorting with a common soldier when she could have an officer! He then orders Josè back to the barracks. Josè pulls his sword on his superior officer, thus leaving him no choice but to desert and join the smugglers. Carmen calls her accomplices to subdue Zuniga, and everyone (except for Zuniga) rejoices in living a wandering life in the mountains, with the whole world as his home but, above all, Freedom! Freedom! (And, of course, Smuggling! Smuggling!)


The entr’acte of Acts II and III features a beautiful flute solo which Bizet wrote originally for L’Arlesienne but did not use. Never one to let a good tune go to waste, he incorporated into Carmen at this point.


The third act takes place in a rugged mountain pass. The Gypsy band enters, carrying cartons of contraband, as they sing about their life as smugglers:

Listen, my friends, and you can be wealthy,
But you’d best watch your step if you want to stay healthy!

They go on to express utter disdain for the soldiers and custom agents who are looking to shoot them; at this point El Dancairo instructs them to rest while he goes to see if the coast is clear. A little dialogue between Carmen and Don Josè follows which makes it clear that Carmen is already tired of her new love. In fact, she urges him to leave the band and go back home to his mother, pointing out that their work as smugglers no longer appeals to him.

Carmen is then joined by the two Gypsy ladies, Frasquita and Mercedes, in a fortune-telling session, with cards. The cards tell Frasquita that she will have a young lover who will take her on a horse to places she has never seen and make love to her all day. Mercedes sees a very rich old lover in the cards, one who dies and leaves her all his money. But Carmen sees only death!


El Dancairo reappears, indicating that he has found a route through the mountains. He instructs the main body of the smugglers to follow him, telling Josè to stay behind to guard the merchandise, mentioning that he saw three customs agents at the pass. The three Gypsy girls, Frasquita, Carmen and Mercedes, in another sprightly trio-cum-chorus, tell the group that they know how to deal with the customs agents:

Just leave the guards to us! When they see a pretty lass
They’ll want a little loving, but then they’ll let us pass!

(The music of this number was also originally written for L’Arlesienne but not used.)
The stage now empties whereupon, of all people, Micaela appears and proceeds to sing her big aria.


Josè now appears, climbing over a boulder. He doesn’t see Micaela, but does shoot at another intruder, just barely missing none other than Escamillo! At first he greets the toreador warmly, until he finds out the purpose of the visit. Escamillo, it seems, is Carmen’s new lover, and he is there to visit his girl friend. Immediately Josè challenges Escamillo to a duel in the Basque manner, with knives. In Merimee Josè is disarmed, but Escamillo gallantly lets him retrieve his knife and continue the fight, a little by-play which does not occur in the opera. In the end Josè overcomes Escamillo and is about to send him to the happy bullfighting grounds up in the sky when the smugglers suddenly appear and save Escamillo’s life. Escamillo then invites everyone to see him fight the bulls in Seville, and leaves. The smugglers prepare to leave also, when suddenly El Remendado catches sight of someone lurking among the rocks. At first the Gypsies think it is a spy, but then Josè recognizes Micaela who has come looking for him.


Act IV opens with a merry crowd milling about in the square in front of the amphitheater in Seville where the bull fight will soon be held. Vendors are busily attempting to sell fans, oranges, programs, water, cigarettes, even binoculars (which evidently already existed in 1820). Soon a procession enters: toreadors, chulos, banderilleros, picadors and, of course the usual administrative officials horning in on the fun, the mayor and the sheriff, the latter evidently not too popular with the crowd who try to give him the evil eye.

Finally, Escamillo enters to the cheers of the crowd. Escamillo sees Carmen, watching from the edge of the crowd, and goes to her (after the orchestra plays the first theme of the overture, representing the excitement of the crowd).


After Escamillo leaves, Frasquita and Mercedes confront Carmen, warning her that Josè has been seen lurking nearby, and urging her to leave. Carmen refuses to go, and tells her friends that she is not afraid of anything. Suddenly Carmen is accosted by Josè and the final scene of the opera begins. At first Josè is conciliatory, begging Carmen to return to him, but when she defiantly refuses, Josè stabs her to death. The opera ends there, with Carmen’s murder; however, by returning to the novelette, we learn that after the killing Josè is arrested and condemned to death, by garrote.