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Carmen premiered in Paris on March 3, 1875 at the Opera-Comique (Salle Favart).
Carmen is George Bizet’s masterpiece. Originally written in the traditional opera comique style, with spoken dialogue, Bizet infused that limited theatrical form with new vitality. He filled the vapid comique style with music of inspired genius, and added a new dimension to conventional operatic situations by endowing them with passionate feelings and violent actions. Nothing like Prosper Merimee’s novel Carmen had been seen anywhere in Europe before the 1875 premiere. For in Carmen, Bizet and his librettists Meilhac and Halvey dared to present a story that was realistic, and one whose main character was a free spirited gypsy who took pleasure in using and discarding men.
By modern standards, the story of Carmen is tame. But to late 19th century Europeans, particularly the elegant, proper, culturally enlightened, Roman Catholic French, Carmen caused a scandal -- so much so that the opening night was deemed an unqualified fiasco.
In 1875, concerts were stressing music of the past rather than that of the present. Opera, if performed in Paris' great lyric theater, L'Opera, was regarded as a grandiose, stylized divertissement; if performed at the theater known as L'Opera-Comique, it was to be a sentimental, pleasant family entertainment. Carmen was among the first operas to exhibit a departure from the romantic trend to glorify heroes and heroines.
Although other operas have followed in its footsteps (notably those of the Italian verismo composers, Mascagni and Leoncavallo, with some contribution by Puccini), Bizet's opera stands alone in its consummate blend of color, melody, humanity, passion and physical action, without falling pretty to the then "voguish style" to glorify ancient princes, virtuous damsels in distress, or personages take more from legend or imagination than from reality. Its characters are drawn from the lower walks of life, and, in the case of Carmen herself, from the seamy side of life. The opera ends tragically, yet without the ennoblement one thought to be inherent in tragedy; the emotions expressed are not those of heroism, self-sacrifice, pursuit of destiny or any of the traits one has come to expect from such works as Gounod's treatment of the Faust legend, Verdi's Aida or a host of other romantic works. Instead we meet several individuals in a true-to-life situation, and are privileged to observe their reactions and to become emotionally involved in their lives without any moralizing or apotheosis on the part of the composer.
Yet Carmen, in spite of its naturalism, is an intensely romantic work. It throbs with patent emotion, swirls with vibrant, nationalistic dances, and sweeps from scenes of color (the tavern of Lillas Pastia) to locales steeped in gloom and foreboding (the Card Scene, at night in the mountains). There are opportunities for colorful costuming, for exotic instrumental sounds (e.g. castanets in the dance scene at eh start of Act II), and for masses of choral sound exhilarating with tunes. In other words, Bizet's opera chooses subjects which are the antithesis of Romantic opera, yet gives it a mode of expression which is Romantic.
Carmen's first notices were universally negative. Here are a few, written by critics totally persuaded that music for the lyric theater need be pretty, clear, and well ordered:
"Bizet's opera contains some beautiful fragments but the strangeness of the subject drove him to bizarrerie and incoherence…It would be necessary to rewrite the libretto, eliminating its vulgarities and the realism which is unbecoming to a lyric work. Carmen should be made into a capricious Bohemian girl instead of being a harlot, and Don Jose, a vile and odious creature in the present libretto, into a man possessed by love…" Unknown
"If it were possible to imagine His Satanic Majesty writing an opera, Carmen would be the sort of work he might be expected to turn out. After hearing it, we seem to have been assisting at some unholy rites, weirdly fascinating, but painful…The heroine is an abandoned woman, destitute not only of any vestige of morality, but devoid of the ordinary feelings of humanity - soulless, heartless, and fiendish. Indeed, so repulsive was the subject of the opera, that some of the best artists of Paris declined to be involved in the cast. In the introduction we have a noisy, blatant theme, which starts off wildly without preface… Scarcely have we recovered from our surprise when…a jovial march is heard. This gives place as suddenly to a curiously chromatic, not to say ugly, phrase andante breaking off upon a discord."
-London, Music Trade Review, June 15, 1872
"Of melody, as the term is generally understood, there is but little."
-Boston, Gazette, Jan. 5 1879
"The heart of M. Bizet, made callous by the school of dissonance and experimentation, needs to recapture its virginity. Carmen is neither scenic nor dramatic."
-Paris, Le Siecle, March 1875
"M. Bizet belongs to that new sect whose doctrine is to vaporize a musical idea instead of compressing it within definite contours…themes are out of fashion, melody is obsolete; the voices, strangled and dominated by the orchestra, are but its enfeebled echo."
-Paris, Moniteur Universal, March 1875
The severe criticism of Carmen was the result of several factors. The impresario of the house, Camille du Locle, was deathly afraid of antagonizing his public, and openly expressed his distaste for the music prior to its premiere. The immortality of the story, not to mention its murderous conclusion, was considered out of place in a theater considered so respectable. And women smoking on stage? Impossible! Even the members of the orchestra and chorus contributed to the problems associated with the work, for much of Bizet's music was thought not only bizarre but extremely difficult to perform.
Although the opera was presented forty-eight times in its first year (thirty-seven of these in the first season), it did little to bolster sagging receipts at L'Opera-Comique. After its premiere, the theater was never full; indeed, Carmen was almost withdrawn after its fourth or fifth performance, and, near the end of its "run" the theater was giving tickets away in order to stimulate attendance.
In October, seven months after its opening in Paris, Carmen received a successful performance at the Vienna State Opera; its worldwide acceptance followed swiftly. Unfortunately the audiences of L'Opera-Comique had to wait until 1883 to hear it again.
The failure of Carmen left Bizet acutely depressed and perhaps caused the subsequent failure in his health that left the composer at death’s door, at the age of 38. It was not until the opera was revised after Bizet’s untimely death by Ernst Guiraud, who converted the opera comique into a grand opera, substituting the spoken dialogue for sung recitatives, that Carmen’s future as one of the world’s favorite operas was secured.
Perhaps the whole question of the relation of Carmen to its Parisian audience can be gleaned by reading one of the few perceptive reviews occasioned by its first appearance. Theodore de Banville, in Le National, wrote, five days after the premiere:
"L'Opera-Comique, the tradition theatre of kind-hearted brigands, languorous maidens, rose-water loves, has been forced, violated, stormed by a band of unbridled romantics headed by M. du Locle; then Georges Bizet, Wagnerian, who is set against expressing passion in songs set to dance tunes…
If we aren't careful they will end by so thoroughly corrupting our second lyric theatre, formerly such a sweet, well-behaved child, that we shall even hear beautiful lines there…
M. Georges Bizet is one of those ambitious men for whom…music must be, even in the theatre, not an entertainment, a way of spending an evening, but a divine language expressing the anguish, the folly, the celestial aspirations of the being who…is a wanderer and an exile here below…
Instead of those pretty sky-blue and pale-pink puppets who were the joy of our fathers, he has tried to show real men and real woman, dazzled, tortured by passion…whose torment, jealously…mad infatuation are interpreted to us by the orchestra turned creator and poet…"
In a public square in front of a tobacco factory, soldiers watch the passers-by. Among them is Micaëla, a peasant girl, who is looking for an officer named Don José. Moralès, the corporal, tells her that he will arrive soon with the changing of the guard. The soldiers try to flirt with Micaëla, but she runs away. The relief guard approaches, headed by Lieutenant Zuniga, and José learns from Moralès that a girl has been looking for him. When the factory bell rings, the men of Seville gather to watch the female workers return from their lunch break—especially their favorite, the gypsy Carmen. She tells her admirers that love obeys no rules (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”). Only one man pays no attention to her: Don José. Provacatively, Carmen throws a flower at him, and the girls go back into the factory.
José picks up the flower. Micaëla returns, bringing a letter—and a kiss—from José’s mother (Duet: “Parle-moi de ma mère”). When he starts to read the letter, Micaëla leaves him alone. He is about to throw away the flower when a fight erupts inside the factory between Carmen and another girl. Zuniga sends José to retrieve the gypsy. Carmen refuses to answer Zuniga’s questions, and José is ordered to take her to prison. Left alone with him, she seduces him with visions of a rendezvous at Lillas Pastia’s tavern (“Près des remparts de Séville”). Mesmerized, José agrees to let her escape. As they leave for prison, Carmen slips away and Don José is arrested.
Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès entertain the guests at Lillas Pastia’s tavern (“Les tringles des sistres tintaient”). Zuniga tells Carmen that José has just been released from prison. The bullfighter Escamillo enters and boasts about the pleasures of his profession, in particular those relating to the ladies (“Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre”). He flirts with Carmen, but she coyly puts him off. When the tavern guests leave with Escamillo, the smugglers Dancaïre and Remendado explain their latest schemes to the women (Quintet: “Nous avons en tête une affaire”). Frasquita and Mercédès are willing to help, but Carmen refuses to join them because she is in love. José is heard singing in the distance, and the smugglers withdraw. Carmen arouses José’s jealousy by mentioning that she has been dancing with Zuniga. He declares his love, but when bugles are heard, he says he must return to the barracks. Carmen mocks him, claiming that he doesn’t love her. To prove her wrong, he shows her the flower she threw at him and confesses how its fading scent sustained his love during the weeks in prison (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”). She is unimpressed: if he really loved her, he would desert the army and join her in a life of freedom in the mountains. José refuses, and Carmen tells him to leave. Zuniga bursts in, and in a jealous rage José draws his sword. The smugglers return and disarm Zuniga. José now has no choice but to desert and join them.
The smugglers take a rest at their mountain hideaway. Carmen and José quarrel. She admits that her love is fading and advises him to return to live with his mother. When the women turn cards to tell their fortunes, Frasquita and Mercédès foresee love and fortune for themselves, but Carmen’s cards spell death—for her and for José (“En vain pour éviter les réponses amères”). As the smugglers set off for the city, a frightened Micaëla appears (“Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”). A shot rings out, and she hides. José has fired at an intruder, who turns out to be Escamillo. He tells José that he has come to find Carmen and mentions her former lover, a soldier who deserted to be with her. José identifies himself, and the two men fight. The returning smugglers separate them, and Escamillo invites everyone, Carmen in particular, to his next bullfight in Seville. Escamillo leaves, and Micaëla emerges. She begs José to return home. He agrees only when he learns that his mother is dying. Assuring Carmen that they will meet again, he leaves with Micaëla.
Seville. The crowd cheers the bullfighters as they enter the arena. Carmen arrives on Escamillo’s arm, and Frasquita and Mercédès warn her that José is present in the crowd. She tells them that she is not afraid and waits while a crowd enters the arena. José appears and begs Carmen to forget the past and start a new life with him, but she calmly tells him that their affair is over (Duet: “C’est toi!—C’est moi!”) and moves towards the entrance. When José tries to block her way, she finally loses her temper and throws the ring that José gave her at his feet. José stabs her to death and surrenders to the gathering crowd.
Carmen (mezzo-soprano) - A gypsy. She is ruthless, resourceful, and fickle. Carmen manages to be both wicked and admirable at the same time, an uncommon mix for an operatic heroine.
Don José (tenor) - A corporal in the army. At first he is a decent, respectable soldier, in love with a peasant girl named Micaela, but he is seduced by Carmen to the life of an outlaw.
Micaela (soprano) - A peasant girl who is in love with Don José. She is loyal, kind, and good-intentioned; she tries to rescue Don José from the destructive life he will lead with Carmen.
Escamillo (baritone) - The most famous matador in Spain. He is also infatuated with Carmen.
Zuniga (bass) - Don José's commanding officer. Although he arrests Carmen for stabbing another woman, he too falls under her spell.
Frasquita and Mercédès (sopranos) - Gypsy friends of Carmen's.
Georges Bizet was born in Paris into a musical family: his father was an amateur singer and his mother was sister to François Delsarte, a renowned vocal teacher. His parents fostered his interest in music, and when he had absorbed everything they could teach him, they enrolled him at the Paris Conservatory. Bizet was barely ten years old, the minimum age required for entry into the conservatory. There he studied composition with Fromental Halévy, whose daughter Geneviève he later married. He also developed into a virtuoso pianist, noted for his technical proficiency and full-score reading (playing the piano from an orchestral score).
In 1857 Bizet won the Prix de Rome scholarship for study in Italy; his first opera dates from the same year, the one-act Le Docteur Miracle. Besides composing, he often worked as a rehearsal pianist and orchestrator, which gave him an uncommon familiarity with the works of the Parisian theater. Today Bizet is remembered primarily as an opera composer, although he did not win fame as such during his short lifetime. In his thirty-seven years he wrote six operas that survive in a performable format, as well as nearly thirty unpublished or incomplete works.
The first of Bizet's operas to reach the professional stage was Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), which lasted eighteen performances after its premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863. Of the various opera projects on which he worked, two more were staged-La Jolie Fille de Perth in 1867, Djamileh in 1872-without establishing him as a major talent. Though discouraged by the indifference of theater managers and the public, he continued to pursue his great love. With Carmen, at the Opéra Comique in 1875, the tide of fortune started to turn, but Bizet died that year, thinking he had written another failure. The work caught on soon afterward and, together with the incidental music for Daudet's play L'Arlésienne, has carried Bizet's reputation.
Bizet seemed to have trouble finding direction as a composer; he frequently began operatic projects but then abandoned them before completion. He often borrowed from these, incorporating their material into later projects. Bizet paid more attention to the meaning and emotional content of the words than to the rhythm and metrical patterns (called "word painting", because the composer uses music to "paint" or illustrate the word's meaning). His choice of subject matter and compositional style presaged the development of verismo opera.
Carmen was drawn from a popular short novel of the same title by Prosper Mérimée (1845), inspired in turn by the writing of George Henry Borrow, an Englishman who had lived among the Spanish Gypsies. Bizet's libretto, conventionalized for the conservative, bourgeois audience of the Opéra Comique, was the work of Ludovic Halévy (a cousin of his wife's) and Henri Meilhac. Since the opéra-comique genre called for spoken dialogue, sung recitatives had to be added if the work was ever to be performed at a grand-opera theater. This was done after Bizet's death by his friend Ernest Guiraoud. The work's initially poor reception is attributable to the novelty and daring of presenting "low life" in this genre and allowing the heroine to die instead of contriving the customary happy ending. Gypsies smoking cigarettes onstage was another risqué element, as was the "immoral" character of the heroine. Carmen survived to become one of the most frequently performed operas everywhere in the world. Several of its melodies are familiar to thousands who have never seen or heard an opera.
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