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An Opera by Georges Bizet

The essentially Spanish story of "Carmen" is told in the well-known novel bearing the same title, by Prosper Mérimée. It can be read in several of the now popular cheap reprints, and one who would enjoy the opera to the full should not miss the opportunity. Bizet’s libretto was prepared from this work by Meilhac and Halévy. It may be well to summarise it in some detail.

ACT l -- Carmen, a Spanish gipsy, of impulsive, untamed, sensual nature, fickle and wayward, yet with all the wild graces of her nation, first invites, then disdainfully repudiates her lovers, and in the end suffers a tragic fate. The scene of her story is laid in Seville, and the period is the early part of the nineteenth century -- about 1820. The first of Carmen’s lovers is Don José, a brigadier in the Spanish army, who is, however, betrothed to an Innocent country damsel, Micaela. At the opening of the first Act Micaela arrives at the guard-house with a message to Don José from his mother. She finds that Don José is not with the band of soldiers waiting for the guard to be relieved; and the officer on duty vainly pleads with her to remain until Don José appears. Presently the relief guard arrives with Don José in the company. At the same time, a body of young fellows assembles near the cigarette factory fronting the guard-house, to await the arrival of the cigarette girls. When the girls enter, the young fellows become excitedly interested in Carmen, the prettiest of the lot. Carmen will have none of their attentions. Her eyes have lighted on Don José, and with bewitching coquetry she singles him out and presents him with a bunch of flowers she has been wearing. Don José had hitherto been quite indifferent to Carmen, but the fascination of the gipsy is not to be resisted; and when the factory bell rings, recalling the girls to work, the young brigadier has practically succumbed to her seductions.

Poster for Federal Music Project presentation of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen at the now-demolished Philharmonic Auditorium (Hazard's Pavilion), Los Angeles, California, in c. 1939

His mind is filled with thoughts of Carmen when Micaela, his old love, returns, to hand him a purse and tell him of his mother. The tender feelings called up by Micaela’s presence, and by the memories of the old home, banish for a time the heated passion which Carmen has aroused. Don José will, as he tells himself, be faithful to Micaela and fulfil his mother’s wishes. He is just about to cast aside the gipsy’s flowers when a tumult is heard in the cigarette factory, and the girls rush out in mad excitement. There had been a quarrel, it appears, and Carmen has wounded one of her comrades. Carmen is seized, and as fate would have it, the officer in charge hands her over to the custody of Don José. Deciding to send her to prison, since she saucily declines to express contrition for what has happened, the officer sets off to procure a warrant for her de-tention. Thus Carmen and Don José are left alone. It is the gipsy’s opportunity. She brings all her wiles, all her powers of fascination, to bear on the young soldier; with the inevitable result that he agrees to further her escape, and promises to meet her in the evening at an inn kept by a man named Lilias Pastia. The officer now returns with the order for imprisonment, and Carmen is marched away to gaol, with Don José and a couple of soldiers for escort. On the way, according to the precon-certed ruse, Carmen gives Don José vigorous blow on the chest, and he falls head over heels purposely. In the confusion which naturally follows, Carmen, further aided by some girl-friends, gets clean away; and Don José himself, for his suspicious part in the affair, is degraded and sent to prison.

ACT 2 -- When this Act opens we are at the inn before mentioned, on the outskirts of the town. Carmen is there with a band of gipsies and smugglers for associates. A number of the military are there too, Carmen being the peculiar object of their attention. It is now that we are introduced to Carmen’s other suitor. This is Escamillo, the famous toreador, who arrives at the inn, and is eagerly hailed by all present. The bullfighter is more energetic in his wooing than Don José (as one says, "he returns Carmen’s love more passionately"); but here, at the inn, she treats him somewhat capriciously, at one time receiving, at another time rejecting his advances. When the inn has’ closed, and Escamillo and the soldiers have taken their departure, two of the smugglers plead with Carmen to join them in a certain enterprise. Carmen declines. She says she must remain in Seville until José, with whom she has contrived to have communication, regains his freedom. On hearing this, the smugglers suggest that she should try to induce the brigadier to throw in his lot with the wandering tribe. Carmen agrees; and so, when Don José at length arrives, she employs all her arts of fascination to make him desert from his regiment. A keen sense of honour prevents him from yielding to this temptation; and he is just leaving Carmen when his superior officer, Zuniger, appears on the scene. The officer, jealous of Don José’s place in Carmen’s regard, haughtily orders the brigadier to be off." This rouses the brigadier, and, drawing his sword, he challenges his superior. Carmen shouts for aid. It is the smugglers who answer her call. They disarm the officer and make him a prisoner, and Don José’s career as a soldier is ended. He has no option but to fly to the mountains, and Carmen, with associate gipsies and smugglers, flies with him.

ACT 3 -- Now we are with the gipsies and the smugglers, far away in the wild recesses of the hills. Night has fallen, and a dangerous enterprise is on hand. Carmen and Don José are there. The latter is even more infatuated than before, but Carmen’s affection for him, always doubtful, has begun to wane. José has pangs of conscience, indeed; for he "belongs to another sphere of society, and his feelings are of a softer kind than those of Nature’s unruly child." As a matter of fact, Carmen has already transferred her affections, such as they are, to Esca-millo; and when Escamillo now arrives at the remote haunt where the object of his frenzied passion is entrenched, there is immediate trouble between the two rivals. The toreador, not recognising Don José, reveals to him his love for Carmen. Maddened by the avowal, Don José challenges him to mortal combat, and only the interference of Carmen and the smugglers prevents a tragedy. Escamillo departs and Don José reproaches Carmen with her disloyalty. Carmen remains unmoved, either by his reproaches or his threats of revenge. Then Micaela reappears, with messages from Don José’s lonely mother, who is dying. Will Don José not return to the old home to see the last of his beloved parent? A multitude of conflicting thoughts rush through his brain. At last the sense of filial duty prevails, and Don José consents to go with Micaela, though not without first breathing out wild imprecations on his rival and his faithless love.

ACT 4 -- This Act takes place outside the Plaza de Toros at Seville. A great bullfight has been arranged, and Escamillo is its hero. He has invited the company to be present in the circus, and of course Carmen is among them, with her friends. Don José is present, too, having discharged the last sad duties to his mother. Carmen has been warned of the danger attending a meeting with her discarded lover. But Carmen knows no fear. She declines to conceal herself or to seek protection, and boldly faces José outside the arena. José "tries hard to touch her heart." He "kneels at her feet, vowing never to forsake her, and to be one of her own people." Carmen remains obdurate. She declares frankly and disdainfully that she has given her love to the toreador, whose triumphs are now being borne to her ears by the shouts of the multitude. Almost beside himself with defeated love and revengeful rage, Don José draws his dagger and stabs her to the heart. Fanfares and trumpets announce the approach of the victorious toreador. But there is no Carmen for Escamillo; Carmen lies dead upon the ground, with Don José, bereft of his senses, kneeling beside her.

Recommended Resources

Poster for Bizet's Carmen

Bizet's Carmen poster designed by Rafal Olbinski (image)

Poster for the 1995 New York City Opera performance of Carmen.

Design by Rafal Olbinski. Size: 38 in. x 24 in.

Buy this Carmen poster

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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