Bizet’s Carmen is now probably the world’s most popular opera. However, the first performance at the Paris Opera-Comique on 3rd March 1875 was regarded by 19th century France as an abject failure. The Parisian press reported that the story of Carmen was obscene, the music obscure and devoid of colour, unoriginal and undistinguished in melody, and declared the opera as a whole altogether undramatic. The opera played for 48 performances to ever-dwindling audiences, until the management of the Opera-Comique resorted to giving away tickets for free. It took a production in Vienna that October to launch the opera on the triumphant worldwide career which continues to this day. But, by then, Bizet had died. An attack of quinsy, exacerbated by his depression at the reception of Carmen, had carried him off to an early grave on 3rd June 1875, aged just 37.
The opera’s popularity stems in part from the plot. In a nutshell, Don José abandons his duty as a soldier and his own true love (Micaela), to follow the exotic, sensual gypsy Carmen. Carmen subsequently abandons the love-struck Don José for the toreador Escamillo. Finally, overtaken by his all-consuming passion and infatuation, Don José kills Carmen.
The story of a man ruined by loving ‘not wisely but too well’ is always appealing, and Carmen herself (with the music Bizet has given her), has become almost an archetype of the wayward, but utterly dazzling, temptress.
Aragonaise – The lively Aragonaise (prelude from Act IV), with its seductive Latin rhythms, accompanies scenes where the crowd gathers to watch the bull-fight.
Intermezzo – The Intermezzo (from Act III) brings a break from Carmen’s fiery passions.
Seguedillo – The Seguedillo (a Spanish dance) from Act I is used by Carmen to describe her passion for free living and loving.
Habañera – The gypsy Carmen captivates Don José with her song “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, to the seductive Cuban rhythm of the Habañera.
Chanson du Torêador – The end of Act II finishes with the famous march of the Toreadors.
Danse Bohême – The suite concludes with the wild Danse Bohême in a flamboyant Spanish style.