A square in Seville. Soldiers and young men enter the square, followed by Micaela, a young peasant girl, who is seeking a corporal named Don Jose. Morales, the guard, tells her that Jose is in another company but will arrive later in the day, whereupon Micaela departs, promising to return. A crowd of street urchins appears followed by the relieving guard with Lieutenant Zuniga and Corporal Don Jose. Zuniga, a new-comer to Seville, asks whether the factory girls are pretty. Jose replies that he never pays them any attention. The midday bell rings and the girls emerge from the factory for their smoking break. Carmen is the last to appear and attracts much attention. She sings the Habanera (L'amour est un oiseau rebelle), which expresses the seductive capriciousness of her nature. Before leaving, she takes the flower from her dress and tosses it to Jose. When the crowd has dispersed, he puts the flower in his tunic.
Micaela returns and sings a tender duet with Jose (Parle-moi da ma mere). She gives him a letter from his mother and leaves him to read it alone. In the letter, Jose's mother suggests that he ask Micaela to marry him. Jose fully intends to do so and is about to discard Carmen's flower when the factory is thrown into an uproar and a crowd of girls rushes into the street. They accuse Carmen of drawing a knife during a fight with another girl, Manuelita. Carmen impudently refuses to answer Zuniga's questions and he decides to send her to prison. While Zuniga is writing the order, Carmen successfully brings all her seductive powers to bear on Jose in the Seguidilla (Près des ramparts de Seville). He agrees to let her escape as he is taking her to prison, but is arrested as a result.
The Tavern of Lillas Pastia, two months later. Carmen and her friends, Frasquita and Mercedes, are entertaining a group of gypsies and soldiers (Les tringles des sistres tintaient). Zuniga tells Carmen that Don Jose, who was sent to prison for allowing her to escape, has just been released. Cries are heard outside the tavern and presently, a torchlight procession enters, acclaiming Escamillo, the famous bullfighter. Escamillo sings the Toreador's song (Vôtre toast). He is immediately attracted to Carmen but, as she offers no encouragement, he says that he will be content to hope and wait. The entire procession moves off, accompanied by the soldiers. Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes are joined by two gipsy smugglers, Dancairo and Remendado, who reveal that they have a plan for which they need the girls' help. Frasquita and Mercedes agree, but Carmen says that she cannot go with them because she has fallen in love with the young soldier who helped her to escape, and is expecting a visit from him. Quintet (Nous avons en tete). Pressed by the others to persuade Jose to join them, Carmen agrees to do her best. Jose is heard singing in the distance and when he arrives, a delighted Carmen dances for him, accompanying herself with castanets. Her joy turns to fury when a distant bugle sounds and Jose tells her he must return to barracks. She accuses him of not loving her at all. In answer to her tirade, Jose takes a flower from his pocket and tells Carmen that he has kept it ever since the day of their first meeting, when she threw it to him (La fleur que tu m'avais jetée). Carmen insists that if he really loves her he will leave the army and join the smugglers (La bas, la bas dans la montagne). When he protests that this is impossible, she order him to go. Zuniga now reappears. There is a fight and Jose draws his sword but the gypsies rush to disarm Zuniga. Jose realises that he has now no choice but to follow the gypsies
The gypsies' camp in the mountains, several months later. The smugglers want to ensure that there are no soldiers lying in wait for them and their contraband cargo, and Dancairo says that they will rest and hour before setting out. From the first exchange between Carmen and Don Jose it is clear that their love affair has run its course. She has grown tired of him and he, though obsessed with her, is tense and unhappy. Carmen asks why Jose does not return to his mother, since the gypsies' way of life does not suit him. From the fierceness of his reply she senses that Jose is prepared to kill her if she betrays his love. Frasquita and Mercedes consult the Tarot cards to read their future prospects, but when Carmen cuts the cards, they foretell only death. Card scene (Melons!). Dancairo now returns and announces that it is time to start and they all depart, leaving Jose behind to guard the camp.
Micaela enters. She is determined to try to recall Jose to a sense of duty. (Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante). She is about to speak to Jose, who has not yet seen her, when he fires a shot down the mountain. Overcome with fear, Micaela hides. Escamillo comes in. He tells Jose that he has come in search of Carmen, having heard that she has recently grown tired of her peasant lover. Jose reveals his identity and they fight. However, the smugglers now return and intervene and Escamillo invites the entire party to a bullfight in Seville, a few days later.
Micaela's hiding-place is now discovered. She tells Jose that his mother is dying and, though reluctant to leave Carmen, he agrees to go back with Micaela.
Outside the arena in Seville. It is the day of Escamillo's bullfight and a crowd of people has gathered, among them Frasquita, Mercedes and Zuniga. The toreros enter and are enthusiastically acclaimed by the crowd; Carmen is by Escamillo's side. After Escamillo has gone into the arena, Frasquita and Mercedes warn Carmen that they have seen Don Jose in the crowd; but Carmen is not afraid. The girls leave her and Jose arrives. At first, he implores her not to leave him, but she declares that their affaire is over. When shouts and cheers are heard from the arena, Jose demands to know whether Escamillo is her new lover. She admits that he is and, tearing Jose's ring from her finger, throws it to the ground. Goaded beyond endurance, his love spurned, Jose draws his knife and stabs her, whilst inside the arena, the crowd cheers Escamillo's victory.
Prosper Merimée's Carmen was first published in 1845 in the Revue des Deux Mondes. The story was told through the personality of a French traveler, obviously Mérimée himself, touring Spain for archeological and historical purposes. In the wastes of Cordova he one day falls in with a stranger, a certain Jose, who recounts the following tale:
'One day, I was outside a tobacco factory in Seville, fixing my gear. All at once my comrades cried: "There is the bell ringing; the girls are coming back to work. You know Senor, that there are as many as four or five hundred women employed in the building. It is they who roll the cigars in a great room in which no man can enter without the permission of the magistrate because the women, especially the younger ones, in warm weather work in a very free and easy costume. There I was, busy with my chain, when I heard some of the people say: "There comes the gitanella!" I looked up and saw her. She wore a red skirt, very short, which displayed her white silk stockings, with more than one hole in them, and tiny shoes of red morocco, tied with flame-coloured ribbon. She came prancing along like a thoroughbred filly from the stud of Cordova. In my country, a woman in such a costume would have made everyone cross himself. At Seville, everyone paid her some gallant compliment on her figure.
She answered them all with side glances, her hand on her hip, as bold as the true gipsy that she was. Her eyes in particular had an expression, at once voluptuous and fierce, that I have never met since in any other human glance. At first she did not please me, and I resumed my work; but she, after the custom of women and cats, who come not when called but come unasked, stopped before me and accosted me.
Finally, taking the cassia flower, she threw it with a twist of her thumb and struck me right between the eyes. It seemed to me, senor, that a bullet had hit me. I did not know what to do with myself, and stood as stiff as a post. When she had gone into the factory, I picked it up, unseen by my comrades, and placed it carefully in my vest. That was my first act of folly ....
The story continues in the predictable vein to the ultimate tragedy.
Although the libretto diverges into many incidents and details from the original tale, it cannot be doubted that Bizet captured the essence of Merimee's heroine, willful, capricious, sensuous ... and eternally fascinating.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) entered the Paris Conservatorium at the age of ten. After winning the Prix de Rome in 1857 he spent three years in Italy, and upon his return to France embarked on his career as an operatic composer.
His best known works are The Pearl Fishers (1863) and the incidental music for Daudet's play L'Arlesienne (1872). The charming Symphony in C major which he wrote at the age of seventeen was not performed until 1935.
In 1872 the directors of the Opera‑Comique commissioned a three act opera from Bizet, the libretto to be provided by the two prolific playwrights Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac. Bizet himself decided on the subject, Merimee's Carmen.
The Opera finally reached the stage on March 3, 1875. It was not a success. Bizet was deeply upset by the failure of the Opera. He had been ill for some time and it seems likely that that the reception of his masterpiece contributed to the deterioration of his health. He died just three months after the first performance, only 36 years old.
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