Impressed by his talent and abilities, the Paris Conservatoire waived its age rule and
beginnings of my life as an artist. I spring from you.”
Bizet’s widow remarried and found fame as a Parisian society hostess, but gained
Guermantes in Remembrance of Things Past.
The libretto for Georges Bizet’s Carmen is by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the
Opéra-Comique in Paris. The hostile reaction of the critics was in part due to the squalid subject
matter of the play, and the fact that Carmen was so brazen. Fallen women were acceptable as
operatic heroines if they sought redemption and met appropriate fates, generally remorseful
deaths or the nunnery. Bizet’s Carmen does not seek redemption, discards lovers with abandon,
and rushes headlong to her fatal confrontation with José.
The opera is in four acts in the style of opéra comique, with spoken dialogue and stock
set in Seville, Spain, where gypsy women work in a cigarette factory. Carmen taunts the men,
telling them that love is free and obeys no rules. Only José resists her seductive allure,
nonetheless he too succumbs, and releases her from custody; Carmen having been arrested for
instigating a fight with the other women. A month later, José, again free after having been put in
jail for letting Carmen escape, faces an ultimatum: He must either desert his post and take up
with a band of smugglers, or she will have nothing to do with him.
At the smuggler’s mountain hideaway Carmen taunts José; her interest in him is fading and she
tells him that he should go home to his mother. Escamillio, a bullfighter and Carmen’s new
romantic interest, appears and the two men fight. Escamillio leaves, but not without first
inviting Carmen and the others to his next bullfight. She and two of the other gypsy girls read
their fortunes, but while the others foresee happiness for themselves in the cards, Carmen sees
only death. Micaëla, pure, chaste and in love with José, appears at the camp begging him to
return home as his mother is dying. José leaves, ominously warning Carmen that they will meet
With Carmen at his side, Escamillio is greeted by cheering crowds as he arrives for the bullfight.
appears and begs her to return to him. She spurns him, telling him that she was born free and
free she will die, throwing the ring he had given her at his feet. Enraged, José fatally stabs
Carmen, collapsing in horror as to what he has just done.
During the opera’s thirty-third performance on 2 June 1875, Célestine Galli-Marié, who created
her own death. She broke down in tears at the end of the act, and collapsed completely after the
final curtain. Bizet would die a few hours later at the age of 36. Four thousand people attended
his funeral in Paris and he was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. The evening of the funeral,
there was a special performance of Carmen, with the critics hailing Bizet as a genius and the
opera a masterpiece, while just weeks before they had sung a different tune.
Guiraud composed recitatives, substituted for the spoken dialogue at the Vienna performance,
which are still frequently heard today. In part, due to the neglect of Bizet’s publishers and the
indifference of his wife and heirs, there are few standard performing editions of Bizet’s works.
One can encounter performances of Carmen with or without the musical recitatives, and there
are frequently cuts and other abridgments made to the music. None of which seems to have
dimmed the public’s enthusiasm, for what is to many, one of the perfect combinations of music
and drama in all of opera.
Bizet’s legacy rests on just a few works, including Carmen, Les Pêcheurs de Perles and the
both who reached artistic maturity and had their first great successes at the same age as Bizet
did with Carmen. They of course lived on to experience fame and fortune, whilst Bizet did not.
The opera is his masterpiece. What the critics deplored, Bizet’s ability to express “so vividly the
torments inflicted by sexual passions and jealousy”; audiences have embraced. The music’s
popularity reaches far beyond the opera house, and Bizet’s melodies are known worldwide.