Carmen, Opera by G. Bizet
Sex, crime, lowly passions and graphic violence – Georges Bizet’s Carmen has everything to be a massive hit today. Sadly, at the time of its premiere on 3 March 1875 at the Opera-Comique in Paris, the work was panned by the prudish critics. Three months later, the visionary French composer’s life was cut short by a heart ailment, and he did not live long enough to see his masterpiece triumph over the naysayers. Nowadays, Carmen is considered one of the pinnacles of the operatic form, and Venice’s Gran Teatro La Fenice offers a fantastic opportunity to appreciate the piece’s many virtues.
Carmen takes its plot from the novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. The libretto by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac stays true to the original and fixes upon society’s underbelly – a creative decision that contributed to the critics’ shock at the premiere. The opera’s hero, the young Gypsy woman named Carmen, is everything a puritan could detest: free-spirited, cigar-smoking, homewrecking, irreverent, unapologetic. Using her natural charms to her advantage, she jumps between relationships and flirts whenever a better opportunity comes along. When she encounters José, the young soldier does not stand a chance. His engagement to the unsuspecting Micaëla falls apart, while Carmen happily moves on to her next conquest, the toreador Escamillo. But how many hearts can she break before the shards cut her, too?
To better tell the story of Gypsies, vagabonds and soldiers in 1820’s Seville, Bizet incorporated Spanish folk motifs into his inspired score. The passionate habanera and seguidilla made Carmen a dream role, while Escamillo’s tenor bravado contrasted wonderfully with José’s modest showings. The music’s authenticity and impact are even more remarkable given the fact Bizet never visited Spain, making the opera’s score a true celebration of musical imagination.