Certain pieces of art have enjoyed a quite astonishing rebirth. Mozart himself was considered a madman by many, & some of his more flamboyant operas were ridiculed at the time, but history has forced detractors to eat their words as the ingenuity has finally shone through. Another such operatic piece, enjoying a reinvention that has taken the world by storm, is Carmen. The French opera comique by Georges Bizet did not receive the kindest reviews on its first viewing in 1875, perhaps signaling that theater-goers were not ready to accept such a drastic alteration of the strict lines laid out for the opera comique genre. Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halevy were the librettists, with the opera based on Prosper Merimee’s short novella. Carmen’s eventual rise was even missed by Bizet himself, who died of a heart attack at the age of 36. Yet it has now become an operatic phenomenon, as fans have warmed to the tragedy’s charm. Carmen tickets are flying off the shelves as enthusiasts line up for a chance to catch the magnificence of the show in the regal setting of the Metropolitan Opera House in the Lincoln Center.
The prelude consists of the Toreador’s Song from later in the piece as a Dragoons Corporal, Morales, is shown idling in front of the guard house, flirting with a village maiden. The guard arrives, carrying Zuniga (Lieutenant of Dragoons) & Don Jose (another Corporal). After the factory bell rings, cigarette girls come from the neighboring cigarette factory to flirt with the men. Amongst them is the hot-headed gypsy beauty Carmen, who rejects all approaches with a famous Habanera. She does show some interest in Jose, who has resolutely ignored her. After the girls have gone back to work, alarms ring out of an emergency at the factory as it emerges Carmen has slashed a girl’s face in anger with a knife. Carmen is chained, but manages to seduce her guard Jose when she is alone, eventually freeing herself with his help & embarrassing him in front of Zuniga, who demotes & imprisons him. A month later, a guilty Carmen cannot stop thinking of him as she refuses the advances of the star-struck toreador Escamillo at an inn. She goes to meet him, dances for him in castanets, & professes her love, asking him to take up a gypsy life with her. Jose initially refuses. But when Zuniga enters & Jose is forced into combat with his superior, two smugglers (friends of the gypsies) enter to disarm them. A hapless Jose has nowhere to run except with Carmen. While the two travel with the smugglers & the contraband, Carmen grows tired of him & mocks him. The smugglers take the girls off to charm a customs officer, when a jealous Jose (left alone) is confronted by Escamillo. The two fight, but peace is restored by the returning outlaws, who get an invite to Escamillo’s next bullfight in Seville. Jose meanwhile receives news of his mother’s illness, & after being rebuked by a spiteful Carmen, he sets off home. On the day of the bullfight, Carmen & Jose openly profess their love in front of the crowd. As Carmen is walking to the stands to see her lover’s fight, a desperate Jose confronts her, pleading with her to return. She refuses, citing her innate free nature. A bitter Jose murders her, as applause rings out in the bull-ring for Escamillo’s victory.
The opera comique genre differed from the regular operas, which showcased heroic bravery themes with their distinct declamatory style. Opera comique, true to its name, based itself on light-hearted topics & featured conversational exchanges between artists on stage. Carmen’s tragic storyline put off fans & critics, who panned it. It premiered first at Paris’s Opera Comique, the theater director of which received a resignation from his assistant over his support of the radical direction of the opera. Bizet died soon, not living to see its popularity after it started in Vienna in 1875.
Carmen tickets have been selling like hot cakes as North America’s fourth most-performed opera comes to town. It has reaped numerous awards over the years & has received great critical acclaim. Carmen’s fatalistic & hedonistic charm is the perfect foil for Jose’s spontaneous nature, enchanting tragedy-lovers worldwide, while the music is superb. Carmen’s success has shown how innovation ultimately reaps its rewards. At the end, for Carmen tickets holders, the charms of watching a stringent art-form push its boundaries is what makes Carmen click.