Carmen, Opera by G. Bizet
Carmen remains the magnum opus of Georges Bizet, a crowning achievement in both operatic composition and topical drama. The story of the Gypsy temptress, her beauty and cruelty, and her eventual downfall shocked Parisian audiences. The premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875 was nothing short of a scandal thanks to the candid treatment of explicit violence and stark eroticism. Bizet endured scalding reviews from the puritans and did not live to see Carmen’s deserved success. Rome’s Teatro Costanzi now pays respects to the French composer’s talent and vision with a faithful revival of his signature opera.
As he prepared for the project, Bizet was determined to break away from convention, which he felt was suffocating the operatic genre. To shake musical theatre to its foundations, he chose Carmen, the novella by Prosper Mérimée, as source. Librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy created a faithful adaptation of the melodramatic original that kept the focus firmly on society’s lower strata and its criminal underbelly.
The titular character is one of the most magnetic protagonists and anti-heroes in the operatic catalogue. Beautiful, disarming and immoral, Carmen stops at nothing in her wish to get the most out of every moment, by any means necessary. Her corrupting influence destroys the life of Don José, a naïve soldier who breaks off his engagement to his childhood love Micaëla and deserts from army duty in order to be with Carmen. Unfortunately, she has already moved on to the handsome bullfighter Escamillo. This time, however, she has broken one heart too many.
To transport audiences to 1820’s Seville, Bizet employed his vast musical knowledge and imagination, even though he had no real-life impressions of Spain. He crafted a score ripe with Spanish folk motifs, and his score for Carmen is full of highlight arias and duets that are masterpieces in both characterization and composition. The anti-heroine’s famous habanera and Escamillo’s testosterone-fuelled aria are just two examples of the musical joy that is this classic opera.