I consider it a masterpiece in the fullest sense of the word: one of those rare compositions which seems to reflect most strongly in itself the musical tendencies of a whole generation.”

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To sing, or to speak: The dialogue in Carmen was originally meant to be spoken. Recitatives were added by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud after the composer’s death, to help broaden the work’s appeal to producers.

  • Puccini’s review: “Yesterday I sneaked in for nothing to hear Carmen. It really is a beautiful work.”

Carmen is the opera which has ensured Bizet’s lasting fame but which, somewhat uniquely, was partly fashioned by pressures from the directorate of the commissioning theatre, the Opéra-Comique. The revenue from this theatre was largely dependent on attracting the bourgeoisie, providing an evening out for chaperoned couples with an eye on marriage. Thus a setting including a cigar factory, a murder outside a bullring and a tavern habituated by gypsies somewhat contravened the norm. Bowing to administrative pressure to soften the tone, the character of Micaëla, the good Catholic girl, was introduced to counterbalance the free-living Carmen and her compatriots.
The opera was ahead of its time in its introduction of real popular music: the Habanera in Act I where Carmen advocates free love was taken from a book of Spanish-language cabaret songs and the Chanson Bohème and the Seguidilla, among other movements, employ Spanish modes and dance rhythms. The theme which introduces Carmen and accompanies the fateful card-scene and her death imitates a gypsy scale.
Originally conforming to the Opéra-Comique norm of a mix of spoken dialogue and operatic numbers, it was for a long time preferred in its posthumous adaptation where the dialogue was replaced by recitatives. More recently, productions prefer its richer version with the details of the full dialogue retained.
Composed by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Heilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Based on the story of the same name by the French novelist, Prosper Mérimée
Place: In and near Seville
Time: About 1820
First Performance: Opera-Comique, Paris, March 3, 1875
Original Language: French

In a public square in front of a tobacco factory, soldiers watch the passers-by. Among them is Micaëla, a peasant girl, who is looking for an officer named Don José. Moralès, the corporal, tells her that he will arrive soon with the changing of the guard. The soldiers try to flirt with Micaëla, but she runs away. The relief guard approaches, headed by Lieutenant Zuniga, and José learns from Moralès that a girl has been looking for him. When the factory bell rings, the men of Seville gather to watch the female workers return from their lunch break—especially their favorite, the gypsy Carmen. She tells her admirers that love obeys no rules (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”). Only one man pays no attention to her: Don José. Coquettishly, Carmen throws a flower at him, and the girls go back into the factory. José picks up the flower. Micaëla returns, bringing a letter—and a kiss—from José’s mother (Duet: “Parle-moi de ma mère”). When he starts to read the letter, Micaëla leaves him alone. He is about to throw away the flower when a fight erupts inside the factory

between Carmen and another girl. Zuniga sends José to retrieve the gypsy. Carmen refuses to answer Zuniga’s questions, and José is ordered to take her to prison. Left alone with him, she seduces him with visions of a rendezvous at Lillas Pastia’s tavern (“Près des remparts de Séville”). Mesmerized, José agrees to let her escape. As they leave for prison, Carmen slips away and Don José is arrested.

Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès entertain the guests at Lillas Pastia’s tavern (“Les tringles des sistres tintaient”). Zuniga tells Carmen that José has just been released from prison. The bullfighter Escamillo enters and boasts about the pleasures of his profession, in particular those relating to the ladies (“Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre”). He flirts with Carmen, but she coyly puts him off. When the tavern guests leave with Escamillo, the smugglers Dancaïre and Remendado explain their latest schemes to the women (Quintet: “Nousavons en tête une affaire”). Frasquita and Mercédès are willing to help, but Carmen refuses to join them because she is in love. José is heard singing in the distance, and the smugglers withdraw. Carmen arouses José’s jealousy by mentioning that she has been dancing with Zuniga. He declares his love, but when bugles are heard, he says he must return to the barracks. Carmen mocks him, claiming that he doesn’t love her. To prove her wrong, he shows her the flower she threw at him and confesses how its fading scent sustained his love during the weeks in prison (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”). She is unimpressed: if he really loved her, he would desert the army and join her in a life of freedom in the mountains. José refuses, and Carmen tells him to leave. Zuniga bursts in, and in a jealous rage José draws his sword. The smugglers return and disarm Zuniga. José now has no choice but to desert and join them.
The smugglers take a rest at their mountain hideaway. Carmen and José quarrel. She admits that her love is fading and advises him to return to live with his mother. When the women turn cards to tell their fortunes, Frasquita and Mercédès foresee love and fortune for themselves, but Carmen’s cards spell death—for her and for José (“En vain pour éviter les réponses amères”). As the smugglers set off for the city, a frightened Micaëla appears (“Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”). A shot rings out, and she hides. José has fired at an intruder, who turns out to be Escamillo. He tells José that he has come to find Carmen and mentions her former lover, a soldier who deserted to be with her. José identifies himself, and the two men fight. The returning smugglers separate them, and Escamillo invites everyone, Carmen in particular, to his next bullfight in Seville. Escamillo leaves and Micaëla emerges. She begs José to return home. He agrees only when he learns that his mother is dying. Assuring Carmen that they will meet again, he leaves with Micaëla.
The crowd cheers the bullfighters as they enter the arena. Carmen arrives on Escamillo’s arm, and Frasquita and Mercédès warn her that José is present in the crowd. She tells them that she is not afraid and waits while a crowd enters the arena. José appears and begs Carmen to forget the past and start a new life with him, but she calmly tells him that their affair is over (Duet: “C’est toi!—C’est moi!”) and moves towards the entrance. When José tries to block her way, she finally loses her temper and throws the ring that José gave her at his feet. José stabs her to death and surrenders to the gathering crowd.

Biography: Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)

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