Carmen was first performed in Paris in 1875. Although now one of the best-known works of Georges Bizet (1838-1875), it was initially far from popular as the controversial main characters shocked and scandalised audiences. Bizet died following the 33rd performance so never lived to see the success this opéra comique achieved in Vienna later that year nor the international acclaim won by its 10th birthday. It has gone on to become one of the most popular and frequently performed operas, with the “Habanera” and “Toreador Song” being some of the most well-known operatic arias of all. We shall hear both of them tonight …
The music of Carmen is widely lauded for its melody, harmony, atmosphere and orchestration. Two orchestral suites were compiled posthumously by Bizet’s friend, Ernest Guiraud. Both comprise 6 extracts, with tonight’s second suite (published in 1887) as follows:
Marche des Contrabandiers (Act 3)
The “Smugglers’ March” opens Act 3. It is set in the smugglers’ camp in “a wild spot in the mountains”. The smugglers are returning to camp with their booty.
Habanera (Act 1)
The full name for this aria is “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (“Love is a rebellious bird”). As the soldiers wait to be released from guard duties, the cigarette factory girls break from work. Carmen appears for the first time and sings this aria while flirting with the young men in the square and teasing José, Corporal of Dragoons.
Interestingly, Bizet thought that this was a folk song but learnt that it had in fact been composed by the Spaniard, Sebastián Yradier who had died some 10 years earlier. Bizet added a note to the score to acknowledge this.
Nocturne (Act 3)
The full name for this aria is “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” (“I say that nothing frightens me”). It is sung by Micaëla who is seeking José, determined to rescue him from Carmen so that he will marry her in accordance with his mother’s wishes.
Chanson du Toréador (Act 2)
The famous Toreador’s Song is sung by Escamillo when he arrives in town in Act 2 ahead of the bullfight. It tells us of various situations in the bullring, the cheering of the crowds and the fame that comes with victory.
La Garde Montante (Act 1)
“The new guard“ march accompanies the fresh soldiers as they arrive to take over guard duties in the square outside the cigarette factory.
Danse Bohème (Act 2)
The Gypsy Dance opens the second act and is a thrilling finale to the second suite. Carmen and her friends entertain the officers in the local inn.
Robyn Morgan, 2nd Violin