Carmen, Opera by G. Bizet
Carmen, a four-act opera by Georges Bizet, is one of the most-loved theatrical stagings around the world. However, it was not like that when the first production had its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875. The libretto for the opera, by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, was based on a novella of the same name written in 1845 by Prosper Mérimée. As such, the themes of working-class passions were already known to many in nineteenth-century society who considered it inappropriate to be the subject of a public performance. Nevertheless, the opera has gone on to be considered a masterpiece, unrivalled by anything else written by the French composer.
When Bizet was casting the title role in Carmen for the first production, many of the leading operatic performers of the day turned him down. As a result, he rewrote sections of his work in order to make the opera more acceptable to polite society. Nevertheless, the central position of gypsies, factory workers and other so-called 'common folk' persisted. Aged just 36 when he finally got Carmen onto the Parisian stage, Bizet would die soon afterwards and miss out on the success it went on to achieve. Notably, the famous Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, said that the opera would become the most popular opera in the world once audiences came to appreciate it.
Set in Seville, the lead character in Carmen is taken by a mezzo-soprano who attracts the attention of a dashing young army corporal named Don José, a part that is written for a tenor. The action switches from a cigarette factory, in act one, to a tavern, in act two. Later, the scene shifts to a smugglers' den where Carmen, accompanied by her friends, hides out. The culmination of the story comes at the bullring in Seville where passions rise to a deadly climax.
Carmen constitutes the most famous example of what is known as opéra-comique in France. Although it is set in Spain, Carmen is a version of this sub-genre of French opera, meaning that words are spoken as well as sung. The subject matter is not necessarily comedic in nature with this style of opera which Bizet proved himself to be a master of. Few audience goers will fail to be stunned by the arias in Carmen, such as the tuneful “Toréador Song” or the memorable “Habanera”.