La cantatrice Madeleine Mathieu dans le rôle de Carmen.
La cantatrice Madeleine Mathieu dans le rôle de Carmen.  /  Montage d'après une brochure de 1922 © BnF

Everything you always wanted to know about… Carmen by Bizet

On June 7, Franco-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna turns 54; with his 30-year career, he has always expressed his appreciation to the French repertoire. This is an opportunity to talk about one of the most often performed French operas in the world: Carmen.

Carmen is an opera in four acts set in Seville during the 1820s, probably the most often performed opera in the world. However, when it was first performed on March 3, 1875, it was welcomed with "coldness". Now that the opera is being performed at the Rennes Opera house directed by Nicolas Berloffa as well as at the Opéra Bastille in a tough and dark staging by Calixto Bieito set in Spain around 1970, with its gipsy camps and Roberto Alagna as Don José, let’s explore this timeless and nefarious work.

Carmen is Georges Bizet’s final opera, with a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (who also worked on operettas by Offenbach), based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. Considered as a renewal in French opera, this work marks a return to lyricism, in the footsteps of the operas by Rameau, Gluck and Berlioz.

The fire of love in Seville

Carmen is above all emotion, love, betrayal, a crime of passion, outlaws… all this is set in Seville, around 1820. It all starts in a square in Seville, between a tobacco factory and a guardhouse. Don José is a soldier, whereas Carmen is the gipsy charming all men (and upsetting all women), who works in the factory. She sings provocative songs, and after some teasing she causes a real fight, attacking a woman with a knife: Carmen must be imprisoned. But Don José (already engaged to a blonde and naive girl called Micaëla) is mesmerised by Carmen, so he frees her and lets her run away.

During act II we find ourselves in Lillas Pastia's Inn, a den of criminals and gipsies, where Carmen sings and dances to seduce the toreador Escamillo. José arrives, mad with jealousy and hopelessly in love with the girl. A fight breaks out, but Carmen blames her lover for not loving her enough to desert and leave with her. Later, he declares his love for her and agrees to follow her in a scene full of passion, introduced by an English horn solo.

Act III: Carmen is bored with José, things are not going well between the two lovers, who are now smugglers in the mountains. Micaëla is looking for José. Escamillo, the toreador, invites Carmen to his next bullfight in Seville. In the final act, everything ends up in a square in Seville again. As Escamillo goes into the arena with Carmen, the crowd welcomes him. Don José appears and begs Carmen to go back to him, but she rejects him. The result: José stabs her, and confesses to killing Carmen.

Love is a gipsy child...

The "Habanera" from act I is among the best known of all operatic arias. It is also the only aria in this opera taken directly from the Spanish repertoire - and its story deserves to be told. Opera singer Célestine Galli-Marié, who was offered the role of Carmen by Bizet because of her warm voice and her natural style - proved to be a demanding performer, to the point that she asked Bizet to rewrite her entrance aria thirteen times. After twelve versions, Bizet has run out of inspiration. He then finds a collection of Spanish songs from 1864, including El Arreglito. Delighted, he adapts the score, which he has already heard at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris.

Bizet thinks it is a folk song (therefore anonymous), so he only makes a few changes in the music and the rhythm, without citing its original author, Sebastián Yradier, a Spanish Basque composer. The style of music is called habanera, which gives its name to Bizet’s aria. There is also a misunderstanding: habanera means “of Havana”, dance/song of Havana... in Cuba there are no gipsies or bohemians like Carmen.

On the other hand, there are many major changes in the text, since the librettists do not want a mere translation of the Spanish version: in the original version, a woman talks about her mistrust for those seducers who promise to marry her and who ask her to dance the habanera, whereas in the French version it is the story of a man seduced by a stranger, falling victim to her love…

A not-so French opera

With Carmen, Bizet continues with the exotic tradition he has already explored in his previous opera, Djamileh (1872), and in which the slave-girl Djamileh has fallen in love with her master, the caliph Haroun, a nobleman who gets tired of her and decides to sell the girl. But this is not the only case: when opera is created, most French artists worship the exotic element, and there is nothing like the gipsy people to evoke a sensual and nomad world.

 «Avec toutes leurs musiques viennoises, napolitaines et moscovites, il n'y aura, caramba ! bientôt plus que moi de française.» Illustration parue suite 1875 dans Le Journal amusant
«Avec toutes leurs musiques viennoises, napolitaines et moscovites, il n'y aura, caramba ! bientôt plus que moi de française.» Illustration parue suite 1875 dans Le Journal amusant  /  Luc © Gallica

During the creation of Carmen at the Opéra-Comique, Bizet is accused not for the Spanish setting of his opera, but for its alleged German side: the work is accused of being “Wagnerian”. And immediately after France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in Sedan (1870), “Wagnerian” is as insulting as calling someone "witch" in the Middle Ages. It is also a way to accuse Bizet of creating a too complicated and unrealistic opera - which is something also experienced by Corneille's Le Cid, also based on a Spanish subject…

Opéra-comique, middle class and moral order

Carmen belongs to the genre of Opéra comique, but is somehow transformed by Bizet: if, on one hand, he keeps the vitality of the genre, on the other the opera is not that comic or light in nature since Mérimée’s story is a tragedy. He also keeps the alternation between arias and spoken dialogue (with no music). But after Bizet’s death, Ernest Guiraud replaced the original dialogue with recitatives (speech and song accompanied by the orchestra) - so that Carmen is not really an opéra-comique anymore, but more a grand opera.

In 1875, the opéra-comique genre is very popular. During the Second Empire (1852-1870), it somehow falls into decline, for the benefit of Offenbach’s operettas. But after the fall of Napoleon III, it is preferred over the operetta, which is considered too frivolous (but which is also very close to the opéra-comique, anyway).

We are in the middle of the era of moral order: during the early days of the French Third Republic, after France’s defeat in Sedan and the crushing of the Paris Commune (1870-71), monarchists and conservative Catholics are ruling France; they want to “re-moralize” the country: they close cabarets and cafés, since they are locations frequented by the radical left and they also compete with the Sunday mass; all the officials who broke ranks are dismissed, curfews are imposed…

Carmen: an independent woman

In this context of moral rectitude, the character of Carmen, a free woman in body and spirit, shocks the audience. During the premiere, the final act is "glacial from first to last", since the audience is mainly made up of families (including young girls to marry off, brought there by their parents) who do not appreciate the freedom and sensuality of Carmen... at all. In the end, Carmen is killed by her upset lover, Don José, driven mad by his love and jealousy... The death of a woman is performed on stage, a promiscuous woman... it's the summit of immorality!

Bizet, humiliated, goes backstage to hide. Here’s what the critics say in Le Siècle, where the protagonist of the opera is brutally attacked: “Carmen should be gagged, placed in a straitjacket, and have water poured over her head to cool off her uterine furies”. The journalist would probably have preferred the version proposed by the Ajax brand, in which a woman cleans her bathtub to the tune of La Habanera

From the novella by Mérimée to the libretto

No one had been shocked by the novella by Mérimée (of the same title) in 1847, in which Carmen walks “swaying her hips, like a filly from the Cordova stud farm. [...] At Seville every man paid her some bold compliment on her appearance. She had an answer for each and all, with her hand on her hip, as bold as the thorough gipsy she was”.

Bizet’s librettists - Meilhac and Halévy - are aware of the cheeky nature of its heroine, therefore they think they can fix things by opposing to Carmen - with her slotted skirt, her cigarette and cut-back blouse - the young Micaëla, a young peasant girl with blonde braids engaged to Don José, whom Carmen takes from her…

Performing as Carmen is quite hard. After Célestine Galli-Marié, many singers tried to be fit for this role, which is suitable for mezzo-sopranos or drama sopranos as well. For example, you can listen to Angela Gheorghiu under the direction of Michel Plasson or also to Elīna Garanča, whose performance was a triumph.

The experts knew

If, on one hand, the audience was shocked by Carmen and did not give it the warm response that its composer was hoping for, it is not a failure; many people welcome Bizet’s work: Tchaikovsky attends a performance and writes: "I am convinced that ten years hence Carmen will be the most popular opera in the world." Brahms sees it on about 20 different occasions, and Saint-Saëns writes to congratulate his good friend.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Georges Bizet (1838-1875)  /  Wikimedia Commons

As for Nietzsche, in The Case of Wagner, he praises both the opera and its composer:

“To me, this work is a trip to Spain. [...] It is an exercise of seduction, irresistible, satanic, ironically provocative. This is how elders imagined Eros. I know nothing like it in [music].”

Carmen is still disturbing

Even now, Carmen is bothering people. In 1982, the opera causes a scandal in China because the performance is considered scabrous, whereas in 2014 the West Australian Opera in Perth decides to drop the opera by Bizet, because it features smoking in the action and setting. Critic and journalist Cameron Woodhead makes fun of this politically correct censorship by pointing out that Carmen is banned “not for its depiction of organised crime or domestic violence, or even its bullfighting, but because the title character works in a cigarette factory".

Fatal number 3

Bizet dies suddenly of heart disease, at the age of 36, the day after the opera's 33rd performance - and the (relative) failure of his last opera is not for nothing… Commentators and biographers wonder a lot about the exact nature of the links between Carmen and Bizet’s death when he is 36. The most inventive is probably Maurice Tassart, who in l’Avant-scène Opéra develops a theory on number 3:

“Carmen was created on the third day of the third month of the year. Three months later, on 3 June, Bizet died – just as Mme Galli-Marié, singing the card trio for the thirty-third time of the year, sang “la carte impitoyable qui dit toujours: la Mort”

Besides, when Bizet dies, it is the day of the opera's 33rd performance in three months, and Carmen was also performed every three days at that time...