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Learn About the Opera "Carmen" by Georges Bizet

Carmen: A Tale of Love & BetrayalOpera, Carmen

The story is set around the year 1830 by Georges Bizet and deals with the love and subsequent jealousy of Don Jose. The events take place in Seville where the Don abandons his lover Micaela for Carmen, a gypsy girl. Out of love for her, he makes the decision to join the smugglers connected to her. He is driven by jealousy of men around her which becomes unbearable for him upon Carmen’s eventual preference for the bullfighter Escamillo. The opera concludes with the death of the namesake by Don Jose, thus marking the tragic end for the primary character. 

Carmen: Story and Acts: 

Act I:

The Act opens in Seville, Spain where a young gypsy girl, Carmen, is being questioned by soldiers on when she would accept their romantic proposals. She replies with the famous song "L'amour est un oiseau rebella" or Habanera. Don Jose is then seduced by Carmen. We are also introduced to Micaela whom the Don assures of his fidelity. By the end of the play, we see Don Jose breaks the law by aiding Carmen’s escape from the law and is sent to prison. 

Act II:

The Second Act is all about Carmen’s feelings for Don Jose. We see that Carmen is proposed to by Zuniga and the bullfighter Escamillo, yet she rejects them both. The latter sings the famous Toreador song to enamor Carmen to no avail. She awaits Don’s release from prison, upon which she tries to persuade him to live the life of a gypsy, Don Jose eventually agrees.

Act III:

In the Third Act, the setting is the smuggler’s den and Carmen now realizes her aversion to Don Jose. In the meantime, Escamillo finds the den where he and Don Jose fought. By the end of the Act, Micaela persuades Don Jose to return with her as his mother is ill. Carmen hears Escamillo singing and walks in that direction. 

Act IV:

In the final opera act, Carmen and Escamillo arrive at the bullfighting arena where the former is warned by her friends that Don Jose is plotting to kill her. This leads to an ultimate altercation between the two former lovers where Carmen declares that she doesn’t love the Don anymore. Driven insane with jealousy and rage, Don Jose murders Carmen then and there.  

Carmen's Composer, Georges Bizet 

Born in 1838 in Paris, as Alexandre Cesar Leopold and then baptized as Georges Bizet. The musical affinity ran in the family with both his parents associated with art. 

Georges showed great skill from a very young age and was consequently accepted at Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine. Between 1848 to 1857, he won numerous awards for his performance there. From 1858, Bizet continued his education at the Villa Medici and toured Europe during his tenure there. 

Bizet attended the premiere of Wagner’s Tannhauser and was in fact, very impressed with the show, despite its general unpopularity.  During the war between France and Prussia in the early 1870s, he joined the National Guard, which resulted in him fleeing Paris after the Prussians departed. He eventually returned and started composing at the Vaudeville but saw mixed results overall. 

1872 marked a new chapter in the history of world opera when Georges Bizet was asked to compose an opera on a short novel, Carmen written by Prosper Merimee. He started writing the music in 1873 but it was suspended as it was deemed too risqué for a general audience. The Opera-Comique burned to the ground in 1873, further postponing his work. Finally, in 1874, Bizet finished composing his masterpiece, Carmen.

Stage rehearsals commenced in October 1874, but there were continuous objections from the orchestra, who considered the piece to be appalling with all the fighting and smoking. Despite difficulties and obstacles, Carmen opened on the night of 3rd March 1875. The response was of a mixed nature, with praise levied for the use of real people rather than puppets and criticism generated on the music being dull and unmoving. 

Georges Bizet died on June the 3rd, 1875, three months after the opening night of Carmen. The composer had hoped for Carmen to be really successful and many attribute the moderate success of the opera to his death. Rumor is that Georges Bizet couldn’t accept the response he received and died of heart attack. 

On the night of his funeral, a special Carmen performance was held, which for the first time, received critical acclaim and popularity. Incidentally, right after Bizet’s death, Carmen became a worldwide phenomenon, gaining rapid fame in Vienna, London, New York, etc.

Carmen was characterized by its darker tones than was the norm at that time and also by Bizet’s realism which influenced the verismo school of opera by the conclusion of the 19th century.

Instrumentation and Music for Carmen

Georges Bizet’s unique use of wind instruments makes the tale of Carmen exquisite. From tambourines to cymbals, the Spanish sensibility and taste are wonderfully captured in the opera. Similarities can be found between Carmen’s musical score and those of Offenbach or Massenet.  Every scene of Carmen is followed by a dance routine except the Act III aria, “En vain pour éviter les réponses amères”. 

The sequidilla, The Habanera, is a duet with Done Jose, where the castanet is utilized. Carmen’s melody, to be precise, is extremely chromatic where the scale ascends and descends through the twelve semitones of the octave and descends enticingly at half steps. 

The music in the opera efficiently communicates Carmen’s essence, along with Micaela’s dainty and elegant tone for her rustic persona. The latter’s musical tune never really changes from Act I through Act III, which in the aria “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante”, we find Micaela unchanged.  Escamillo’s musical tone perfectly projects his lusty and erotic nature in his Toreador song but we do catch a glimpse of his softer side in Act III in “Si tu m’aimes”. Don Jose’s Flower Song projects Carmen as a demonic entity and immediately after as an object of his desire. The song is about his masochistic acceptance of her in his life. The conclusion of the opera with the murder of the heroine is marked with music that sounds lyrically exigent but is contained at the same time. 

Carmen, by Georges Bizet, is one of the most popular operas, universally accepted as a masterpiece. Its progressive tone, grim story and groundbreaking narrative made this and still makes it a prime example of the cultural impacts that operas have had on us. 

If you like to learn more about Georges Bizet who composed Carmen please visit our "About Georges Bizet" page.  



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