Georges Bizet’s only opera, “Carmen,” is a dramatic tale of gypsy woman named Carmen in the 1820s. The opera is sung in French but is set in the Spanish city of Seville. This opera is one of the most emotionally expressive and is beautiful in some parts, and mysterious, or even evil, in others. The couplet in act two, “Habanara” in act one, and the overture all contain very famous melodies that are easily recognizable.
Operas consist of two main elements, the libretto (the words and story) and the music (the lyrics and orchestra). There are lots of different pieces in opera that can vary depending on their time period and composer. Some of the most common pieces in an opera are arias, ensembles (duet, trio, etc), scenes, choruses, songs, and recitatives. In addition, there are the necessary numbers including the overture, finales for each act, and the entr’acts. An overture is the grand beginning to an opera, and most often contains passages from later in the opera. It is kind of like a preview for the rest of the opera. Entr’acts are instrumental pieces played in between acts. In operas with four acts, like “Carmen,” there are three recitatives, one at the beginning of each act except for act one, where the overture takes the place of an entr’act. The second entr’act is also called an intermezzo. This happens between acts two and three, after the intermission. Recitatives are a unique number in opera because, to the audience, they sound as if the performer is talking in normal dialect when actually, they are singing in a style that is meant to sound like normal talking. This means that every single fluctuation and syllable in their speaking is carefully coordinated with the music. There are two types of recitative; secco and accompagnato. Secco recitatives are recitatives where the orchestra is not playing and only the vocalists are singing. Accompagnato recitatives, on the other hand, have the orchestra playing along with the vocalists and the recitative singing is closer to actual singing but still has the effect of normal conversation.
At the beginning of Bizet’s “Carmen,” there is a dramatic beginning with the Overture consisting of two parts. The former representing the excitement of the life of a bullfighter with the famous melody, and the far more menacing latter that represents the dark story of love and loss portrayed between the opera’s two protagonists. The two main characters in this opera are Don Jose and Carmen (also called Carmencita).
As stated in the English translation of the libretto by Operas Arias Composers Singers, act one of “Carmen” is set in the town square of a town called Seville. In the first vocal number, “No. 2 Scene and Choir,” the guards at their post are observing the people of Seville. Then, Micaëla, a young peasant (soprano), enters the stage looking for Don Jose (tenor). She asks the guards if Don Jose is with them and the guards say that he isn’t. When she tries to leave, the guards surround her and ask her to stay. She refuses and eventually exits the stage. The lieutenant, Morales (bass), and the guards watch over the people, and the routine changing of the guards occurs. Don Jose, Zuniga (bass), and the choir of children come onstage, and as the guard changes, the children imitate the guards.
After several repeating verses and a short accompagnato recitative, the cigarette factory workers are on a break, one of these workers being Carmen the gypsy (mezzo-soprano). Carmen enters the stage holding a small flower after a chorus between the young men and the women working at the factory. All of the young men instantly turn their attention to her and then she sings the famous “No. 5 Habanara” about how love is a “rebellious bird” and a “Bohemian child,” as well as to “Beware” if Carmen loves you. During “Habanara,” Carmen gives Don Jose the flower she was holding. Once he receives the flower, the choir of the cigarette factory workers crowd around him and continue to sing “Habanara.” The factory workers proceed to reenter the factory and everyone else, except for Don Jose, leaves the stage. Micaëla enters the stage and sings an extensive and beautiful duet with Don Jose. The choir of the cigarette factory workers return suddenly while screaming, and the guards and Zuniga also return. The workers divide, vocally, into two groups. The women explain how Carmen got in a fight with Manuelita, but then the two groups argue about who started the fight. Eventually, Carmen is arrested by Don Jose. Carmen states how she fears nothing and she will never confess. After Zuniga confirms she is guilty, there is an uproar in the crowd of factory workers as they express their agreement or disagreement with the decision. Don Jose ties a rope around Carmen’s hands and is instructed to take her to prison.
After everyone but Carmen and Don Jose leave, Carmen convinces Don Jose, with much difficulty, to let her go in the beautiful “No. 10 Seguidilla and Duo.” This leads right into the finale where there is chaos among the workers as they reenter the stage along with Zuniga and the guards. This is the end of act one.
Act two is set in Lillas Pastia’s inn. Carmen, Frasquita (gypsy, soprano), and Mercedes (gypsy, mezzo-soprano) are dancing while singing “No. 12 Bohemian Song.” The song gradually increases in tempo and ends with a dramatic orchestral solo. Then Carmen engages in a conversation with Zuniga and Morales and she finds out that Don Jose went to prison for letting her escape and that he was released the previous day.
An offstage choir is singing majestically about the bullfighter, Escamillo (baritone), who is near Lillas’s inn. Zuniga and Morales decide to invite him in for a drink. Next, Escamillo sings a famous number, “No. 14 Couplets.” Afterward, Zuniga leaves and promises to return in one hour, but Carmen tells him not to. She knows that the smugglers use Lillas Pastia’s inn as a meeting place and she does not want Zuniga to report them. Then, everyone inside the inn except for Lillas Pastia, Carmen, Frasquita, and Mercedes leave. Soon thereafter, the leaders of the smugglers, the Remendado (tenor) and the Dancaїre (tenor), enter the stage and tell Carmen, Frasquita, and Mercedes that they would like them to come on a smuggling journey because of their deception and thievery. Frasquita and Mercedes agree, but Carmen first refuses because of Don Jose. She then agrees for them to leave that night and she would join them the following day with Don Jose.
Don Jose approaches the inn while singing and everyone except Carmen and Lillas Pastia exit the stage. Carmen, Lillas Pastia, and Don Jose are now the only ones left in the inn. Don Jose says he lost his rank and was imprisoned but he does not care because he loves Carmen. For almost the rest of act two, Carmen and Don Jose are conversing about their love and how Don Jose was jealous because his lieutenant, Zuniga, said that he adored Carmen. Carmen then proceeds to mock him and the conflict between them, and the plot of the whole opera starts to be revealed.
In the finale of act two, Zuniga returns and sees Don Jose and grows jealous as well. The Remendado, the Dancaїre, Frasquita, Mercedes, and a crowd of gypsies crowd around Zuniga. The Remendado and the Dancaїre restrain Zuniga as Carmen taunts him and then the a few of the gypsies escort him from the inn. Then, they all convince Don Jose to come to the mountains for their smuggling trip. This is the end of act two and is followed by the intermission.
Act three is set in the mountains at night. After the intermission, entr’act two (the intermezzo) is performed by the orchestra and the curtain rises revealing Carmen, Mercedes, Frasquita, Don Jose, the Remendado, and the Dancaїre.
The Remendado and the Dancaїre leave the stage to inspect a hole in the city walls as a potential way to get the goods into the city. Don Jose apologizes to Carmen for his harsh speaking at the inn and Carmen replies that she does not forgive him. He then asks if she still loves him, to which she replies that it is much less than before.
Mercedes and Frasquita begin fortune telling with their cards. Frasquita predicts a life of adventure with her love, and Mercedes predicts a life of riches in a castle. When Carmen tries her fate with the cards, she gets death every time, and then sees that Don Jose will also die. The Remendado and the Dancaїre return and say there is three officers guardian the entrance. After Carmen, Mercedes, and Frasquita discuss their plan to deal with the officers, everyone leaves the stage and Micaëla and the guide enter the stage. The guide tells her this is the place she was looking for and leaves. Micaëla then sings a breathtakingly beautiful aria describing how she pretends to be brave in her search for Don Jose, but she is afraid and needs to give urgent information to Don Jose. After she is done singing, she exits. As soon as she leaves, Don Jose and Escamillo enter the stage.
Don Jose asks Escamillo who he is and why he is in the mountains. He says he is looking for his love and Don Jose asks what her name is. He replies, “Carmen.” This angers Don Jose and they get in a knife fight. After the fight rages on for a little while, Carmen, the Remendado, the Dancaїre, Mercedes, Frasquita, and the smugglers return to the stage. Carmen stops Don Jose from attacking Escamillo.
In the finale of act three, Escamillo claims that one day they will have a rematch. Don Jose is jealous of Carmen’s apparent interest in Escamillo and explains how he is growing tired of the pain. Carmen dismisses him. Micaëla enters from behind a rock and Don Jose recognizes her. Micaëla tells Don Jose his mother is in despair and calls for him. Carmen tells him to leave, but he refuses because he says Carmen just wants him to leave so she can ditch him for Escamillo. Micaëla begs Don Jose to go and see his mother, but he still refuses. Micaëla then tells him his mother is dying, which convinces him to go see her. He spitefully tells Carmen to be happy that he is leaving. He swears they will meet again.
Act four is the final act of “Carmen.” After the third, and final entr’act, the curtain rises to show a crowd of adults and children standing in front of the circus when Escamillo is about to fight a bull. As the crowd enthusiastically welcomes Escamillo, accompanied by Carmen, Escamillo and Carmen express their love. Frasquita and Mercedes then warn Carmen to leave because Don Jose is in the crowd watching her. Everyone but Carmen and Don Jose exit the stage and enter the circus.
Don Jose asks Carmen to leave their past in the past and begs her not to leave him. He asks if she still loves him, to which she replies no. She tells him to leave, and he refuses. Meanwhile, the crowd inside the circus is cheering for Escamillo. The tension rises to the musically dramatic ending when Don Jose stabs Carmen and she dies. Don Jose then shows remorse for his action by holding Carmen’s dead body. The curtain lowers.
Bizet’s “Carmen” is a dramatic tale of love. This is enhanced by the Romantic style of music, which allows for a better expression of emotion. Because of this, the music becomes less of a black and white spectrum of emotion, but rather the full spectrum of color. “Habanara,” Micaëla’s aria, the couplet in act two, and the suspense of the final number in act four convey such a range of emotions that would be difficult to accomplish in other eras of opera. This is where Bizet’s musical talent became evident. While all Romantic Era music is typically more dramatic, Bizet was able to express annoyance, playfulness, suspense, and many more emotions distinctly in a way that is unique from any other opera.