Who is this woman and what does she want? When is she most herself? She gets into a fight at the cigarette factory where she works and flirts with the restraining officer Don José who consequently spends a month in prison for letting her go. She is amused and perhaps touched. How much further can she push him? She makes him beat up his own captain and then join her on a smuggling gig. It is no surprise that she soon gets bored with a guy so easily manipulated. He doesn’t disappear, though, like her other discarded lovers, even though a sweet and simple girl waits for him back home. He comes back in pursuit of the one and only Carmen, who is now seeing a toreador, Escamillo, she met in a bar. When she finally convinces this groveling and raving ex-soldier it is over, he kills her.
It is hard to believe that this most popular of operas, with its familiar tunes and colorful dances, was a flop at its first performance in 1875. “Carmen is neither scenic nor dramatic,” one critic wrote. Others claimed, “of melody, there is but little” and “if it were possible to imagine His Satanic Majesty writing an opera, Carmen would be the sort of work he might be expected to turn out.”
Even with the experienced libretto team of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, protests accompanied the work from its inception. The director of Paris’ Opéra-Comique, where lighter fare balanced the grander works given at the Palais Garnier, was scandalized by the subject matter. “Bandits, gypsies, and girls working in a cigar factory? At a family theater?” The low-life setting was bad enough, but having the heroine die onstage was too much. “Death at the Opéra-Comique? This has never happened before. Don’t let her die. I implore you!” The protesting opera director Adolphe de Leuven eventually resigned his post and librettist Halévy mutilated the pages from his diary that cover these stressful months.
The realistic setting, scandalous as it was, helped spark a musical equivalent of the verismo school in literature, with its true (“vero”) and gritty stories of peasants, criminals, and the down-trodden. Operas like Cavalleria Rusticana, I Pagliacci, and La Bohème replaced political, historical, and mythological plots with contemporary and often violent stories. As it was, Carmen’s libretto team had already sanitized the story and tamed the characters from Prosper Mérimée’s novella, itself influenced by a poem by Alexander Pushkin. Mérimée’s heroine viciously slashes the face of another girl at the cigarette factory, steals the narrator’s watch as an alternative to cutting his throat, has multiple lovers, and is married to a one-eyed ex-con. The opera’s Don José is elevated from a violent bandit-murderer to a Dragoon corporal tied to his mother’s apron strings. The librettists even gave him a girlfriend back home in the form of the virtuous and chaste Micaëla, foil to the immoral and irresponsible Carmen. The critics objected nevertheless.
After the disastrous premiere Bizet, depressed and suffering from throat problems, left Paris and died of a heart attack just three months later, convinced he was a failure. He was 36 years old. Planned performances of Carmen in Vienna went on anyway, with the original spoken dialogue replaced by grand operatic recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud. Productions in Brussels and London soon followed, and it premiered in New York in 1878.
From the beginning, criticism centered on the depiction and performance of the title role. The first interpreter, Célestine Galli-Marié, had supported Bizet from the start, enlisting other members of the cast, and resisting demands to change the graphic ending. After Bizet’s death, she championed the work and took her interpretation all over Europe, returning to the Opéra-comique for a final performance as Carmen in a fundraiser for a statue memorializing the composer. But early critics found Galli-Marié’s interpretation “trivial and brutal; she turns this feline girl into a cynical harlot.”
Already the male gaze is at work, with men judging and often conflating the heroine and her impersonator. One writer is disgusted by what he sees as a progressive decline in the morals of heroines; he considers Carmen “a veritable prostitute of the gutter and the street-corner.” To one, she is “heartless, lawless, devoid of honor,” to another, “a wild animal who charges right into danger.” One critic was infuriated by both Carmen and Galli-Marié, writing that he wanted “to put an end to her mad hip-swinging, confining her in a straitjacket after having refreshed her by pouring a tub of water over her head.” Both Carmen and Galli-Marié’s realistic performance were deemed unfit for the family-oriented theater.
By now pretty much everything has been tried with Carmen. Peter Brook’s 1983 stripped-down Tragédie de Carmen eliminated the grand opera trappings to focus on the story’s intimacy and fatalistic vision. In the filmed version, Zehava Gal’s clear voice and direct gaze are more alluring than the cleavage and hiked-up skirts of a more traditional Carmen. Risë Stevens, the leading Carmen of the 1950s, was all hungry mouth and feline energy, while Marilyn Horne brought toughness and earthy humor. There is grand vocalism to showcase the verismo vocal talents of Giulietta Simionato and glittery set-pieces for the passionate intensity of Anna Caterina Antonacci. Régine Crespin so commanded the role that a friend remembers the night she kept kicking the knife away from Plácido Domingo—who had accidentally dropped it in their final, fatal duet—until he became genuinely angry at her teasing and taunting. She finally let him pick it up and “died” laughing, as she slowly slid down his body.
In some stagings, Carmen actually runs into the knife, proving that Don José lacks the guts. She has manipulated him all along and retains this power into her own death. It is telling that in this final scene she refers to herself in the third person, theatrically. Director Francesca Zambello agrees, insisting that like Don Giovanni, Carmen has a death wish, adding “today, we would have her on meds in a flash.” Some see a battle of the sexes, where Carmen must die for refusing to submit to her man. Others see conflict between a civilized and a wild society, where Carmen’s exotic, chromatic music eventually takes over Don José’s cultured and European singing. Some consider the tug between a good woman (Micaëla) and a bad woman (Carmen). Somewhere between critic Rodney Milnes’ “sluttish femme fatalewho destroyed a decent, upright soldier” and the “honest, liberated woman murdered by a maternally dominated psychopath” is Carmen.
In her fascinating study of the opera, musicologist Susan McClary shines a light on the work within the context of exoticism and an orientalist fad in late 19th-century art and music. McClary sees the character of Carmen as an example of the dangerous alien, the “racial Other who has infiltrated home turf.” In literature, art, and music, gypsies and Jews often represented outsiders, free from social norms and strict codes of behavior. Gypsies in particular were seen to have an ability to assimilate the trappings of other cultures, and McClary notes this in Carmen’s ease at slipping between musical styles in her different musical numbers.
Zambello has directed the opera many times and sees, even admires, this adaptability. “She is actually amazing, as she is a smuggler, actress, dancer, singer, and smart little hustler. I imagine her like a lot of clever people who make it through the edges of society.”
Bizet might even have heard gypsies performing exotic songs and dances in Paris nightclubs, and both he and his librettists knew the world of showgirls, entertainers, and artists’ models that fed a well-established prostitution industry. It is even possible that Bizet modeled Carmen on his patron Céleste Mogador, an illegitimate runaway-turned-prostitute and celebrity entertainer, who married a count and turned to writing. Under Carmen’s influence, Don José dips down into this underworld, where he is destroyed. Yet Bizet himself took the opposite route, giving up his womanizing and clubbing to marry a “good” girl. “No more soirées!” he writes jubilantly. “No more sprees! No more mistresses! I have met an adorable girl whom I love! The good has killed the evil!”
Opera director Beth Greenberg thinks that Carmen needs constant attention to feel powerful and in control over a life a low wages and societal disdain. Sex is her strongest weapon, so she dresses sensationally and moves “like a panther stalking the night—by instinct rather than reason.” In her stagings, Greenberg highlights Carmen’s skills as a singer and dancer, but always clarifies the character’s need to dominate and not merely entertain.
Tchaikovsky admired the vitality and charm of the title character, and found Galli-Marié an outstanding and spellbinding actress, overcoming vocal resources that were “far from first-rate.” Similarly, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche appreciated what he called an “African” gaiety in the work, a “southern, tawny, sunburnt sensitiveness.” She may be a victim, a seductress, a free spirit, or a demon, but Carmen lives by her own code of conduct. “No, I will never give in to you!” she shouts before her death. In the ensemble that ends Act Two, she cries, “La liberté!” extolling the open sky, the wandering life, the entire universe spread out for the taking. But the most intoxicating thing, she insists, is freedom.