Carmen is an opera in four acts by French composer Georges Bizet. The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. The opera was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875, where its breaking of conventions shocked and scandalized its first audiences. The opera is written in the genre of opéra comique with musical numbers separated by dialogue. It is set in southern Spain and tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery gypsy Carmen. José abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties, yet loses Carmen’s love to the glamorous matador Escamillo, after which José kills her in a jealous rage. The depictions of proletarian life, immorality, and lawlessness, and the tragic death of the main character on stage, broke new ground in French opera and were highly controversial.
The Story of Carmen, Act I
In a town square in Seville, soldiers and townspeople are gathered chatting and moving about, when a young peasant girl name Micaela questions the soldiers about her love, Don Jose. The soldiers try to persuade the young girl to stay with them until Don Jose returns, but she declines and leaves. Soon, Don Jose arrives moments before the cigarette factory bell rings and a group of women, including the beautiful gypsy, Carmen, exit the building. The soldiers flirt with the girls and asks Carmen when when she will love them. Her reply is given in the famous aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebella” a.k.a. the Habanera. (Can’t understand French? Read the Habanera lyrics and translation). (Watch a video of the Habanera.) Learn more about the creation of the Habanera in this Habanera Profile. When Carmen sees Don Jose she tosses a flower in front of him in order to seduce him.
Don Jose picks up the flower and becomes enchanted by the beautiful Carmen. Shortly thereafter, Micaela returns with a letter and a kiss sent to Don Jose by his mother. In the letter, Don Jose’s mother has asked him to marry Micaela. Don Jose promises his fidelity and love to Micaela. Moments later, a fight breaks out at the cigarette factory between Carmen and another woman.
Carmen injures the woman before she is captured by Officer Zuniga. Zuniga commands Don Jose to escort Carmen to prison. However, Carmen charms Don Jose into letting her escape. When Don Jose is discovered for letting Carmen escape, he is thrown into jail for one month’s time.
The Story of Carmen, Act II
At Lilas Pastia’s Inn, Carmen and her friends, Mercedes and Frasquita, are socializing with several soldiers including Officer Zuniga, when the victorious bullfighter, Escamillo, arrives with a celebrating entourage. During the Toreador song, “Votre toast, je peux vos le rendre”, Escamilo attempts to capture Carmen’s heart. (Watch a video of “Votre toast” (Toreador Song).) Learn the Toreador Song lyrics and text translation. However, his attempts are unsuccessful, as are Officer Zuniga’s, who tells Carmen that he will return to the inn later to meet with her – Carmen’s heart waits for Don Jose’s release from prison. A while later, once the crowd has dispersed, the smugglers Dancairo and Remendado ask for help from Carmen and her two friends. Mercedes and Frasquita agree to help, but Carmen refuses as she knows that Don Jose will be released from prison that day and meet her at the inn.
When he finally arrives, Carmen dances for him. Her dance is cut short when a bugle sounds in the distance, signaling Don Jose to return home. Carmen mocks his obedience and tries to persuade him to remain with her and live the gypsy life. Don Jose does not give in until Zuniga arrives at the inn searching for Carmen. Zuniga orders Don Jose to leave, but in a fit of jealousy, he defies his commanders orders. Dancairo and Remendado tackle Zuniga and take him away from the inn. After all of this, Don Jose, feeling as if he has no other choice, stays at the inn with Carmen.
The Story of Carmen, Act III
Don Jose, now at the smuggler’s hideout in the mountains, begins to reminisce about his former home and his mother and starts missing them dearly. Carmen, who has decided she no longer loves him, takes notice and starts taunting him to leave, but he does not.
Mercedes and Frasquita tell their fortunes with a deck of cards. For the two girls, the cards reveal a life of wealth, love, and luxury. For Carmen and Don Jose, it reveals death. After discussing their plains, the smugglers and the girls leave, while Don Jose watches over the hideout. Soon, Micaela, assisted by a guide, comes to the mountain hideout and hides behind a mound of rocks when she hears a gunshot fired by Escamillo. Escamillo enters the hideout and begins telling Don Jose about his crush on Carmen. He also tells Don Jose about Carmen’s relationship with a soldier, not knowing the story is about Don Jose. Don Jose becomes very angry and starts fighting Escamillo. The smugglers return before the fight gets worse. Escamillo invites Carmen and the others to his upcoming bullfight as he leaves the hideout. Micaela finally emerges from her hiding spot, and tries to convince Don Jose to return home during the aria “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante”. (Watch a video of “Je dis”.) After several unsuccessful attempts, she finally persuades him to leave by telling him his beloved mother is dying. Don Jose promises his return to Carmen and leaves with Micaela. In the distance, Escamillo can be heard singing, and Carmen begins heading in that direction.
The Story of Carmen, Act IV
During the procession of the toreadors, Carmen and Escamillo are seen arriving together. Mercedes and Frasquita warn Carmen that Don Jose is lurking around the crowd plotting to kill her. She tells them that she will speak to him to resolve the matter once and for all. While Escamillo enters the bullfighting ring, a desperate Don Jose meets Carmen outside the arena. He tells her she must commit her love and fidelity to him. She explains that she no longer loves him and throws the ring he gave her on the ground. Now completely mad, Don Jose stabs Carmen in the heart with a dagger. She dies simultaneously with Escamillo’s bullfighting victory. When the arena empties, Don Jose confesses his crime to the crowd.