The online opera guide to CARMEN
“Carmen” belongs to the imperishable masterpieces of opera history. The role of Carmen is one of the most attractive roles ever written for female voices, and the work became the most performed opera in the entire repertoire.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I (Tobacco factory-Scene)
♪ Act II (Smuggler Tavern-Scene)
♪ Act III und IV (Smugglers Scene, Finale in Sevilla)
♪ L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera)
♪ Votre toast je peux vous le rendre (Toréro)
♪ La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (Flower aria)
♪ Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante (Micaela’s aria)
♪ Les voici (Cuadrilla)
Emanuel Schikaneder, based on a collection of fairy tales by Christoph Martin Wieland (including fairy tales by August Jacob Liebeskind).
The main roles
Tamino, Prince - Sarastro, Head of Order - Queen of the Night, Queen and Mother of Pamina - Pamina, Princess - Papageno, Bird Seller - Monostatos, Overseer in the Temple of Sarastro.
EMI, Gundula Janowitz, Nicolai Gedda, Walter Berry, Lucia Popp and Gottlob Frick conducted by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus.
Roles and Synopsis of CARMEN
Bizet received the commission for “Carmen” from the Opéra Comique in Paris. Its director Camille du Locle assigned him the librettists Meilhac and Halévy, who had already written many brilliant librettos for Offenbach. They based the plot of the love story largely on Mérimée’s model, only Don José’s prehistory was left out. They supplemented the plot with the characters of Micaela and Don Camillo, who enhanced the role of Picador Lucas from Merimée’s novel.
The role of Carmen became decisive for the story of its creation. The personality of this figure was unique at that time: an indomitable woman, erotic, temperamental, and a factory worker to boot. Moreover, vulgar and rebellious instead of romantic and patient. In short: the exact opposite of what was expected of a woman in the late 19th century. It sparked a heated debate in the run-up to the premiere. When the theater directors realized what a “monster” was approaching them, they tried to change the course of events. But it was too late. Even the planned leading actress refused to sing the role. In the person of Célestine Galli-Marié a suitable replacement could be found at short notice. The choice of the singer was and is crucial for success. The role is very demanding, it requires an erotic charisma, great singing skills, seductive dancing and acting abilities. Galli-Marié did not make it easy for Bizet, he had to change the entrance aria 13 times for her.
Music and leitmotif
Through the deliberate choice of musical stylistic elements such as Spanish dances, chromatic motifs and exotic harmonies, Bizet gave this opera a characteristic robe. He also used several motifs which, as motifs of memory, took on a leitmotivic character. The most important one, the so-called Carmen motif, is mentioned here as an example. It already appears in the entrance aria of Carmen and is quoted again and again. It is a chromatic motif which Bizet developed from the gypsy scale (possibly inspired by Liszt’s work):
Creation and world premiere
The story of its creation was not only difficult because of the role of Carmen, there were also major problems with the choir. Bizet expected scenic presence from the choir, but he complained that the choir singers were not used to much more than singing and standing around. Despite the more than a hundred rehearsals, Bizet had to cut some passages to ensure that the first performances were performed in an orderly manner. The first performance took place in March 1875, and the first act was warmly received. But the longer the work lasted, the frostier the atmosphere in the great hall of the Opéra Comique became. It was too much for the conservative audience. One critic wrote about the leading actress: “To see her swinging with her hips like a filly at a stud farm in Cordoba – quelle vérité, mais quel scandale” (Abbate/Parker, “a story of the opera”). The New York Times also wrote a scathing review: “As a work of art, this opera is absolutely void”. Only Tchaikovsky wrote home: “And how wonderful is this opera material! I am convinced that in ten years Carmen will be the most popular opera in the whole world”. Bizet suffered greatly from this. In addition, he had domestic problems, his wife was having an affair with his best friend. All this weighed on him, and on the night of the thirty-first performance he died of a chronic heart condition. He no longer experienced the growing enthusiasm for his work. After Bizet’s death, a version with recitatives was created for the Vienna premiere of Ernest Guiraud, instead of the spoken dialogues of the Opéra Comique. The success was enormous and from then on the triumphal career of “Carmen” began. Since then there exist two versions of the work, which are regularly performed.
CARMEN ACT I
Bizet takes up the theme of bullfighting in the Prélude. In the two corner sections he uses a “Paso Doble”. This march-like piece of music traditionally accompanied corridas. The dance variant of the “Paso Doble”, which is ornamented with flamenco elements, imitates the movement of the torero. The man imitates the bullfighter and the woman the capa (the bullfighter’s scarf). In the middle part we hear the famous theme Escamillos.
Overture – Beecham
Synopsis: In Sevilla on the square in front of the tobacco factory. The peasant girl Micaela from Navarra is looking for Don José. Soldiers are waiting for the break of the workers.
Sur la place chacun passe – Beecham
Synopsis: The changing of the guard is imminent. Boys imitate the scene.
Instead of a martial changing of the guard, we hear the scene of the boys. It is a charming march-like interplay of a cornet trumpet and piccolo flutes. Tchaikovsky, who was an admirer of Carmen, adopted this idea in his Queen of Spades a few years later.
La garde montante – Solti
Synopsis: The workers of the factory step onto the square during the work break.
La cloche a sonnée – Solti
La Habanera – Bizet’s Masterpiece
Synopsis: Synopsis: Carmen appears and is surrounded by men. Nothing is more boring for her than ingratiation, because love is a game for her.
With the aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” Bizet has painted a true character portrait of the role of Carmen. Rarely has one of the great roles in opera literature been defined by only one aria as Carmen with the Habanera. The Habanera is a piece of music of Cuban-African origin, which contains a provocative sexual allusion with sensual movements. Bizet has taken the main theme from a work by the Spaniard Yradier, who had spent some time in the Caribbean. Bizet used a chromatic vocal line for Carmen. The verses are in a minor key and the chorus is in major key. The orchestra accompanies Carmen with a ostinato motive of the cellos, thus reinforcing the hypnotic character of her Habanera.
We hear first the interpretation by Maria Callas. Maria Callas sang the Carmen only in concert. She would certainly have been a charming Carmen. Take a look at the concert excerpt. The facial expression reflects the music and then the stole slips off her shoulders. She knew how to play a role and win the audience over!
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (1) – Callas
The next interpretation is from the Latvian singer Elina Garanca. Carmen is her signature role. Beautifully sung and probably the most erotic of all Carmen recordings.
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (2) – Garanca
Victoria de los Angeles (1923-2005) was a great Carmen of her time. As a native Spaniard she complained that many interpreters simply do not understand Spanish women. Carmen should be elegant, not crude and vulgar, she said, adding: «Even the common Gypsy women have a pride and reserve. They stay faithful to one man at a time, no matter what. That is my Carmen. » (NYT)
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (3) – de los Angeles
A word on the 1907 recording of Calvé. Calvé, born in 1858, was the greatest Carmen of her time and was as admired as Maria Callas was in later years. «In 1891 she sang the premiere in an opera of Mascagni in Rome, where she met the castrato Mustafà, through whom she learned to form her «fourth» voice with the floating sounds» (Kesting). When she sang the gypsy for the first time – «Carmen which is pleasant only in bed and on her deathbed» (so Prosper Merimée, the writer of Carmen) – Henderson spoke of an ideal cast.
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (4) – Calve
The fith and last interpretation is with Leontyne Price
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (5) – Price
Softie vs Macho Part 1: The softie
Synopsis: Now Micaela appears and brings Don Jose a letter from his sick mother. Micaela is head over heels in love with Don Jose, who thinks back longingly to his village and has no eyes for Micaela.
In opera literature we often have to deal with “testosterone-controlled” tenor parts. Be it the youthful Italian type of heroic tenor like the Radames or the Wagner type heroic tenor like the Tristan. This is not the case in Carmen. Don Jose, although he is a military, is characterized by his more vulnerable features. And this is how the music is written.
Listen to Placido Domingo as he sings the “Parle-moi de ma mère” beautifully soft and sensitive. This scene is actually surrreal. The librettists of Carmen, Meilhac and Halévy, often wrote the librettos for Offenbach’s comic operas.
Synopsis: Micaela brings Don Jose a letter from his mother who his ill. Micaela is head over heels in love with Don Jose and languishes for a single kiss and the (simple-minded ?) Don Jose does not realize that and sings only of his mother…
Parle-moi de ma mère – Domingo / TeKanawa / Solti
Près de remparts de Seville – the effect of Leontyne Price
Synopsis: Noise comes from the cigarette factory. Carmen has instigated a stabbing and Don José has to arrest her. She is interrogated by Zuniga and shows no respect for him. He hands Carmen over to Don José. Carmen sings seductively about the tavern of Lillas Pastias, where she wants to meet her next lover, who could well be Don José. Don José melts away …
“Près des remparts de Seville” is written in the form of a séguidilla, a fast dance in triple beat. The seductive music oscillates between singing and declamation, hovering between major and minor, and is only sparsely orchestrated.
Près des remparts de Seville (1) – Garanca
Leontyne Price was an excellent Carmen, very sensual and exotic. Listen to Price in this beautiful passage. Fischer: «Whoever has such a pronounced sound character as she does, whose voice exudes a downright sexual scent, will not be in the right place as Violetta or Butterfly, as Adriana Lecouvreur or as Elisabetta in Don Carlos, but when she sang Aida and Carmen, Leonora and Tosca, then one could hardly escape the effect of this vocal cat of prey.»
Près des remparts de Seville (2) – Price
CARMEN ACT II
Les tringles des systres tintaient – A delicacy at the beginning of Act II
Synopsis : In the smuggler’s tavern of Lillas Pastia. Carmen sings a song that carries everyone away.
With the restrained rhythm of a dancing flamenco couple, the piece begins cautiously. Carmen begins her song, again with exotic harmonies and accompanied by the syncopated beat of the tambourine. With a great crescendo, the singing and the music unfold a hypnotic effect. The piece begins in the Andante and ends in a furious Presto. In addition, Bizet continually adds instruments to the orchestral part, which further intensifies the pull.
Les tringles des sistres tintaient – Callas
See another version, this time a live version from the Met with Elina Garanca as Carmen. This is pure seduction, now you will understand why Don José surrenders to Carmen…
Les tringles des sistres tintaient (2) – Garanca
Softie vs Macho Part 2: The macho
Synopsis: The famous bullfighter Don Escamillo appears. He sees Carmen and makes advances to her, but she rejects him. Zuniga is also in the tavern and announces that he will be back in an hour.
There are different views on how this role should be sung. Should it be sung rather lyrically or heroically and loud? There is a wonderful anecdote to illustrate this. At a rehearsal for the opera Carmen, a singer roared in such a way that Thomas Beecham felt compelled to say to him: “Would you please remember, sir, that you are engaged for the role of Torero and not for the bull?”
However, the scene is grandiose. That’s why I chose this scene for you from a beautiful film adaptation with Ruggiero Raimondi as Escamillo.
Toréador – Raimondi
You will hear a second version of Ernest Blanc from Beecham’s great complete recording.
Votre Toast je peux vous le rendre – Blanc/Beecham
The flower aria – Bizet composes a great Aria
Synopsis: Two smugglers want to persuade Carmen to go into the mountains. But Carmen puts them off. She awaits Don José, whom Zuniga put in prison for letting her escape. When Don José appears, Carmen dances a flamenco for him. Don José is enchanted, but then he hears a trumpet calling for roll call. He wants to leave and Carmen is angry about his disinterest. She tries to persuade him to join the smugglers, but José wants to lead an honest soldier’s life. Carmen is disappointed by so little courage and mocks him. José swears her his love and reminds her of the flower she threw him.
One of the most beautiful arias in opera history is the so-called flower aria, “la fleur que tu m’avais jetée”. Introduced by the beautiful sounds of the English horn, Don José wants to prove that she is wrong to doubt his love. It is a very varied aria with many contrasting elements. There is a lot of psychology in this aria. Abbate/Parker: «The aria is introduced by a ghostly orchestral flashback, with the recurring theme being played by the English horn, as if this instrument were to be established as a tamed force … With the words «Et j’étais une chose à toi», provided by Bizet with the instruction ‘pp rall e dim’, José swings to a high B and keeps it long and incredibly quiet. It is a moment that strongly reminds us of the end of «Celeste Aida». Now the voice sounds as if it had been sucked into another sphere. José is so fascinated by Carmen that he dives into her musical world.» You hear this aria four times from different great singers. Decide which one you like best.
Let us start with Domingo.
La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (1) – Domingo/Solti
Next is Vickers, the canadian Tenor.
La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (2) – Vickers/Karajan
and last, the great Verdi Tenor Jussi Björling.
La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (3) – Björling
The dramatic duet of Carmen and Don José
Synopsis: Carmen accuses him of only feigning love, otherwise he would go with her to the smugglers in the mountains. Don José sees no way out between his love for Carmen and the unthinkability of a desertion, and Carmen withdraws her love from him.
She sings and tears the music from José’s longing tonal orbit into her own. This is the only place where they sing together for a long time. Jose repeatedly sings a graceful melody that seems to come from another sphere, but Carmen refuses to take up his theme; instead she confronts him with musically different answers. Only once they do really sing together: when he repeats his beautiful, haunting sentence ‘Carmen il est temps encore’. Soon Carmen, while Jose is still producing love lyrics against all reason, sings melodyless single notes and only gets herself up to a single spectacular high cadenza when she threatens to put an end to it with her most decisive ‘No’: ‘Jamais Carmen ne cédra’.» (Abbate/Parker)
Non, tu ne m’aimes pas – Gedda / LosAngeles / Beecham
Synospis: Now Zuniga appears. Don José gets into a scuffle with his superior and now he has no choice but to join the smugglers. The two smugglers hold the officer at bay with their pistols while Don José and Carmen escape.
Bel Officier – Troyanos
CARMEN ACT III
Synopsis: In the mountains with the smugglers.
Écoute, écoute, compagnon – Karajan
Synopsis: Don José and Carmen have been together for months and are arguing more and more often. José leaves to visit his mother in a nearby village. Carmen is with Frasquita and Mercedes. They lay tarot cards and Carmen sees in them her and José’s imminent death.
Melons! Coupons! – Garanca / Caballero / Eddy
Synopsis: The smugglers have scouted out the way, now it’s up to the women to distract the customs officers. They leave the place and Don José stays behind to guard the goods.
At this point Bizet wrote a virtuoso concertato of the three women and the women’s choir, accompanied by beautiful wind instruments.
Quant au douanier – Solti
Synopsis: Micaela arrives in the mountains where José lives with the smugglers. She is still in love with Don José, but is afraid of this environment and of Carmen. She encourages herself that she should not be afraid of Carmen.
Bizet introduces this piece with a short, beautiful horn motif. The accompanying horns and the voluptuous muted strings create a touching atmosphere.
Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante – Price
Another convincing recording can be heard from Kiri Te Kanawa, who interprets a more expressive than dreamy Micaela with a beautiful legato and the luminous high notes.
Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante – Te Kanawa / Karajan
Synopsis: When Micaela arrives at the camp, she sees Escamillo arrive there and hides. Escamillo has come for Carmen and José reveals himself as her lover. The two get into a scuffle. Carmen has returned in the meantime and can separate the quarrels just in time. Micaela comes out of hiding and tells José that his mother is dying and leaves the camp with José to return to the village.
Bizet paints a Spanish atmosphere
Bizet has never traveled to Spain in his life, but he has captured a lot of Spanish musical color. You can see the festive Spain passing by in your mind’s eye. Bizet has taken the main melody from an Andalusian song and orchestrated it ravishingly.
Entracte – Beecham
CARMEN ACT IV
Synopsis: A festive atmosphere prevails in front of the bullring in Seville. The team of bullfighters arrives gloriously. Carmen appears at Escamillo’s side.
This famous piece is also known as “Cuadrilla”, after the name of the team of bullfighters. We hear the themes of the overture in this grandiose mass scene.
Here in a festive version of the Arena di Verona.
Les voici – Arena di Verona
Carmen’s death in Seville
Synopsis: Escamillo enters the arena and Carmen sees Don José, who has come to take her back. In front of the bullring she tells him that the relationship is over. José begs her, but Carmen throws the ring at his feet. This is too much for him, and he stabs Carmen with a knife.
Bizet has composed a dramatic final scene. The first part is composed recitative-like. When Carmen flings “Tout est fini!” at him, he tries a tender melody. But when she terminates the relationship, the orchestra sound changes into frenetic staccato of the winds and a nervous string sound. With the background of bullfighting music, the murder of the raging José takes place.
C’est toi…il est… Viva – Callas/GeddaC’est toi…il est… Viva – Callas/Gedda
The RCA recording captivates by the outstanding Carmen:
RCA with Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Robert Merrill and Mirella Freni under the direction of Herbert von Karajan and the Orchestra and Choir of the Vienna State Opera.
The Decca recording captivates with the outstanding Don José:
DECCA with Tatjana Troyanos, Placido Domingo, Jose van Dam and Kiri te Kanawa under the direction of Herbert von Karajan and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the John Aldis Choir.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to CARMEN by Georges Bizet