Written by the French composer Georges Bizet, with the libretto produced by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, the Carmen opera premiered on 3rd March 1875. Largely unsuccessful during his lifetime, Carmen was received poorly and condemned by contemporary critics. Tragically, Bizet died a few months later, never knowing how well regarded his opera would become.
Later recognised by some of his most distinguished and revered peers, including Tchaikovsky, maestros praised Carmen and Bizet’s skills as a composer. Subsequently, it has been hailed as a masterpiece and remains one of the most popular operas today.
Written as an opera comique, Carmen’s story is told in four acts. Based on Prosper Mérimée’s novella from 1845, the plot is set in Seville and portrays the story of protagonist and tenor Don José, in a narrative of lust and obsession, as he is seduced by the alluring soprano and Spanish gypsy, Carmen.
Expressed through Carmen’s characters and Bizet’s exceptional music, Carmen was pioneering, changing the course of operatic history. Featuring expertly composed melodies, Carmen was an early form of realism in opera, a genre called verismo opera.
Opening on a town square in the centre of Seville, a group of soldiers are talking. Surrounded by townspeople, one of them, a young peasant girl named Micaëla, enquires about her love, corporal Don José. At the changing of the guard, José returns under the command of Lieutenant Zuniga and is informed that Micaëla is searching for him.
The bell rings in a nearby cigarette factory and a group of female workers emerge, headed by Carmen. Exceptionally beautiful, she flirts with the soldiers, but her attention is captured by Don José. Having ignored her, Carmen drops a flower in front of him. Reaching for it, José is enraptured by her beauty, even when Micaëla returns, bringing a letter from his mother.
His reads the letter, which requests that he marry Micaëla, when a fight starts abruptly in the factory. Seizing Carmen on Zuniga’s orders, José is instructed to escort her to prison. She entices José, persuading him to let her escape and he is subsequently arrested.
At a local tavern, Carmen and two friends, Frasquita and Mercédès, entertain the soldiers. Zuniga attempts to flirt with Carmen, followed by the triumphant bullfighter Escamillo. Carmen rejects them stating her heart is José’s. As they leave, two smugglers arrive and ask the women to assist with their latest plan. While Frasquita and Mercédès agree, Carmen refuses and awaits José’s imminent arrival.
The smugglers depart and José returns. Carmen is delighted and dances for him until the barrack’s bugle sounds. Readying to leave, Carmen teases his obedience and tells José to prove his love by living freely. Just as he refuses, Zuniga arrives in a rage and demands his return. In a fit of jealousy, José defies him. Instead, the smugglers reappear, restrain Zuniga, and José leaves with them.
At the smuggler’s hideaway, José begins to miss his former life. As a result, he argues with Carmen who declares she is no longer in love with him. Meanwhile, Frasquita and Mercédès read fortunes, forecasting love and luxury for themselves, but death for Carmen and José.
The smugglers discuss their scheme with the group and depart, leaving José to keep watch. During their absence, Micaëla arrives and hides, watching as Escamillo appears, declares his love for Carmen and quarrels with José. The smugglers return, stopping the fight and Micaëla makes her presence known. She begs José to come home, persuading him after revealing his mother is dying.
In Seville, Escamillo arrives to an adoring crowd for his latest bullfight and is joined by Carmen as he enters the arena. Frasquita and Mercédès warn Carmen of José’s presence, rage and jealousy. Carmen decides to face him and put the matter to rest.
José pleads with Carmen, begging her to declare her love and commitment. He asks her to leave with him but she refuses, stating that her heart no longer belongs to him and throwing his ring to the ground. Enraged, José takes his dagger and pierces Carmen’s heart. She dies tragically as the sounds of Escamillo’s victory erupt from the arena.
To witness the magnificent Carmen opera in an ancient amphitheatre with unparalleled acoustics, attend the Verona Opera Festival. A central feature of our Verona Itinerary, you can experience the atmosphere and incredible performances on our opera holidays in Italy.