A French opera set in Spain, composed in the Italian verismo style and premiered in Paris in 1875, gave the opera-going public a massive shock. Its composer, Georges Bizet, was asked to write a new work for the Paris Opéra-Comique, who were in the habit of staging light pieces with definite moral overtones. Bizet, a realist, chose to be different and wrote in Carmen about the non-heroic and the underclass. His characters (shockingly to many at the time) were factory workers, cigarette-smoking, liberated women, gypsies and others. This deeply upset public proprieties – the characters were the antithesis of what was considered proper at the time. Opéra comique was not what we might think of as comic opera, but a French version of the German Singspiel featuring spoken dialogue between the sung sections. Before the premiere Bizet had noted “I have written a work that is all clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody.” Sadly, after the first performance, he was also to say he foresaw “a definite and hopeless flop” and he was still full of pessimism when he died suddenly of a heart attack three months later, never to know that Carmen would become one of the world’s most popular operas.

The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after Prosper Mérimée’s novel of the same name. Set in Seville in about the 1820s, the four-act opera is full of passion and violence. 

In Act One the alluring gypsy girl Carmen comes off shift at the local cigarette factory and flirts with the soldiers, who have been changing the guard. There is one (Corporal Don José) who ignores her, but this merely intrigues her and she tosses him a flower. After she returns to work there is a stabbing at the factory and Carmen is blamed and arrested. She taunts José and begs him to put love before duty and contrive her release. He gives in and lets her get away, but is arrested and jailed himself.

Act Two is set outside Seville in a tavern which is a haunt of smugglers. Carmen wants to meet José, who has just been released; she pleads with him not to go back to barracks. Escamillo, a handsome toreador, enters the tavern and takes Carmen’s fancy. She loses her temper when José has to leave against her wishes, but he has kept her flower and she will remember him. 

By Act Three, Carmen is deeply attracted to Escamillo, the macho toreador. She again teases the hapless José and the two men fight. It is clear that the bullfighter is Carmen’s choice and that José has lost her. In Act Four, outside the bullring in Seville, Escamillo is waiting to take part in that afternoon’s important bullfight. Once again Carmen plays fast and loose with the jealous José who, patience snapping at last, stabs her to death. As the crowd celebrates Escamillo’s victory, José, the real victim of the piece, gives himself up. The ‘Fate’ theme which has heralded Carmen’s appearances all through the opera is there for her at the end, with the haunting fragment of melody sounding over shimmering strings.

Composer:  Bizet Wiki Link:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen Title of Musical Work:  Carmen (Excerpts)

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

Opera House
(13 July 2017)