“dull and obscure … the ear grows weary of waiting for the cadence that never comes
– Léon Escudier in L’Art Musical
On today’s date in 1875, Georges Bizet’s brilliant opera “Carmen” premiered in Paris. And the above comment by Escudier is just one of the barbs that were thrown at the work. It was deemed to be much too risque’ and totally inappropriate for public consumption with its tails of love, seduction, and murder. Its main star performer was accused of an immoral performance. Unfortunately, the composer would die only a short time after this raucous premiere. Today of course, Carmen is looked on as one of the most popular Operas ever written and is the source of some very familiar tunes.
Bizet is Commissioned to Compose “Carmen”
Born in 1838, Georges Bizet (below) was an up and coming young composer when in 1872, he was commissioned to write a three-act opera based on a short novel called “Carmen” by the writer Prosper Mérimée’. He began the music in 1873, but the management of the
Opéra-Comique was worried that this story was too salacious for their wholesome venue with the head of the that theater pressuring Bizet for re-writes, out of fear for the financial wreck that might occur if the opera failed. Because of this. the work on Carmen was put on hold. Bizet worked instead on a work he hoped to produce at Opéra, but this work was halted when the Opéra burned to the ground in October of 1873. Then in 1874, one of the members of the Opéra-Comique who opposed the “risque'” content of Carmen resigned, opening the path for Bizet to finish his work on Carmen. This he happilly did, and Carmen was completed that summer.
The Lurid Plot of Carmen
The controversy that arose from Carmen’s premiere all came from its plot, which was taken from Mérimée’s 1845 book. In Bizet’s operatic version, Carmen is a beautiful and free-spirited young gypsy girl who works at a cigarette factory in Seville, Spain, wherein she arouses the notice and affections of a corporal in the Army named Don José. Although he is already engaged to marry the sweet, guileless country girl Micaëla, Don José is of course seduced by the the lovely and exotic
Carmen in Act I. In Act II, he helps her her escape from the police. In Act III Don Jose’ deserts from the army and gets himself mixed up in a smuggling plot over his lover. In Act IV (above), Carmen spurns Don José in favor of a handsome bullfighter named Escamillo. This, of course brings about a fit of jealous rage in the throws of which Don José fatally stabs Carmen outside the bullring in Seville. The opera contains some of the most popular tunes of operatic history, such as the “Habanera” and the “Toreador Song”, so it was not without melody and brilliant orchestration. But that plot… the first three acts were not so bad for audiences of the day, but this last bit involving desertion and murder were considered by many to be entirely too much for a decent venue.
The Reaction to “Carmen”
This bloody story-line caused an uproar with the critics and within the management of the Opéra-Comique, for which more “family-friendly” plots had previously been the norm. The mezzo-soprano, Galli-Marié who played Carmen (below), had her performance denounced by one critic as “the very incarnation of vice”. This was a truly tragic story
which was a tough matter for the audience. And moreover, the heroine’s scandalous behavior was a major shock for many audience members. The opera did decent enough business, but it was not the huge winner which Bizet had been hoping for. Nevertheless many of Bizet’s fellow composers admired “Carmen”. Tchaikowsky wrote “Carmen is a masterpiece in every sense of the word … one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch” And following the debut, Jules Massenet wrote to Bizet; “How happy you must be at this time—it’s a great success!”. Sadly however, Bizet himself did not live to see the success that “Carmen” would become. It was believed that Bizet was just unable to put the controversy behind himself, causing a depressed mood in the young composer which lead to his death. He died on June 3 of that very year at the young age of 36. Many felt that the stress of the whole “Carmen” experience had contributed to his early demise. This is something which can never be finally determined. But what can be said is that “Carmen” has since become one of the most beloved and popular operas ever written. And it is certainly too bad that Bizet didn’t live to see this final result of his work.