Georges Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most beloved pieces of theatre in the operatic canon. The story’s exotic locations, which include a Sevillian cigarette factory, a bullring, and a smuggler’s lair, add to the air of mystique and fantasy that has kept audiences spellbound since the opera’s premiere in 1875.
Carmen originally premiered at the Opéra-Comique theatre in Paris, causing quite a stir with its overt sexual themes and tragic ending. Still reeling from the dismal outcome of the Franco-Prussian War, Parisians in the 1870s had a taste for the melancholic and Carmen’s femme fatale character perfectly captured the spirit of the moment. As an opéra comique (a French genre similar to modern musical theatre), Carmen originally consisted of musical numbers interspersed between spoken dialogue. Music was later added to these dialogues by Bizet’s friend, Ernest Guiraud, to fit the standard structure of an opera.
At the time of Carmen’s premiere, Bizet was a struggling up and comer in the French musical landscape. His primary musical influence came from his teacher, Charles Gounod, a composer now fondly remembered for operas like Roméo et Juliette and Faust. From Gounod, Bizet developed an instinctive grasp for the lyrical style unique to France in this period. His experimentalism and eccentrism however are all his own! He sadly never found major success during his own lifetime, hampered by bouts of crippling self-doubt. His tragically young death, aged only 36, further limited his output, the silver lining being his completion of Carmen only three months prior to his death.
The story of Carmen is one of tragic love, jealousy, and unalterable fate. Don José falls for the seductive Carmen, an infatuation that costs him his military commission, his reputation, and eventually his sanity. As he falls deeper under Carmen’s spell, Carmen’s fleeting affections turn more to Escamillo, the bombastic bullfighter. Following a climactic fight between the two suitors, Carmen convinces Don José to leave. At Escamillo’s next bullfight, Don José seeks out Carmen. When she spurns him, he loses control and stabs her. The opera ends with the celebratory music of Escamillo’s victory accompanying the sight of Don José standing over Carmen’s lifeless body. Though this ending is undoubtedly, heartbreakingly tragic, Bizet and his librettists, Meilhac and Halévy, masterfully navigate the emotional topography of the opera, offering up moments of pure joy and elation to balance out the weight of Carmen and Don José’s tragic fate.
Though Carmen was by far the most successful of Bizet’s operatic creations (it ran for 45 performances in 1875 – 27 more than any of his other shows), it initially failed to invigorate both the audience and the critics. The directors of the theatre had been reluctant to even stage the work because of its risqué nature. It has been suggested that Carmen’s popularity only eventually rose due to a morbid curiosity created around Bizet’s untimely death. Though this is an oversimplification, it is certainly true that the opera experienced a gradual rise in popularity. Egged on by the support of composers such as Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky, within less than ten years it had become a global success and has continued to intrigue and entertain countless generations of audiences into the present day!