When Georges Bizet’s Carmen made its debut in Paris in 1875, it seemed an unlikely work to achieve the fame and longevity it has enjoyed. Its subject matter–criminality, sex, jealousy, and murder–confronted its audience rather aggressively by the standards of its day, and critical reviews left Bizet despondent. He died three months after the opera’s premiere, at the age of 36.
The title character stands out as a figure beyond the sensibilities of a 19th-century audience. A Romani woman, she has a fierce independence that she willingly dies to preserve. Early in the opera, she seduces a young corporal, Don Jose, whose unit guards the cigarette factory where Carmen works in Seville. Her hold on Don Jose leads him to abandon his childhood sweetheart and to allow Carmen to escape when duty requires him to arrest her for an assault on a co-worker. After serving a period of detention for letting Carmen go, Don Jose kills his commanding officer during a confrontation and flees with Carmen and her band of smugglers. Having given up everything he has known, he becomes desperate as he sees that their romance is ending. Though she knows from an omen that Don Jose is destined to kill her, Carmen begins a love affair with Escamillo, a famous bullfighter. Overcome by jealousy, Don Jose ultimately kills Carmen when she refuses to come back to him, and she steadfastly asserts her will as an individual.
Carmen’s character is a truly provocative outsider, partly because she is a member of the Roma community, traditionally and consistently looked upon with mistrust. Her status as an outlaw further establishes her as a kind of anti-hero. Being a strong-willed woman, however, places her far beyond the sympathies of the typical operagoer in Bizet’s Paris. While a modern audience can more readily admire an aggressive female character who defies conventions, the opera in which she appears could not hope to march into mortality based on its contemporary audience’s appreciation for its story.
Indeed, Bizet’s score receives the credit for Carmen’s place in the operatic canon. Bizet’s music includes exotic Spanish and Romani themes, along with passionate conflict and force. Though other Romantic-era composers such as Hector Berlioz had similarly energized their own operatic scores, Bizet–perhaps inspired by his doomed title character–infuses this opera with a dark, defiant intensity previously unknown to the musical world.
Today, many of us readily recognize musical themes from Carmen, having heard them in Sesame Street sequences, in television commercials, and on the soundtrack of the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears.
Here are some highlights:
Carmen, Habanera: L’amour est une oiseau rebelle
Escamillo, Toreador Song
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Cover photo courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.