A New Type of Operatic Heroine


Illustration of Bizet’s opera Carmen, by Luc. It was published in Journal Amusant in 1875

 
 

Poster from 1975

 
 

Carmen is an opera comique in four acts by the French composer Georges Bizet. The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and , based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. The opera was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, on 3 March 1875, and at first was not particularly successful.

 
 

Celestine Galli-Marie, the mezzosoprano who created the role of Carmen. Painting by Henri Lucien Doucet.

 
 

The depictions of proletarian life, immorality and lawlessness, and the tragic death of the main character on stage, broke new ground in French opera and were highly controversial. After the premiere, most reviews were critical, and the French public was generally indifferent. Carmen initially gained its reputation through a series of productions outside France, and was not revived in Paris until 1883; thereafter it rapidly acquired celebrity at home and abroad, and continues to be one of the most frequently performed operas; the Habanera from act 1 and the Toreador Song from act 2 are among the best known of all operatic arias. Later commentators have asserted that Carmen forms the bridge between the tradition of opéra comique and the realism or verismo that characterised late 19th-century Italian opera.

 
 

Poster for a circa 1896 American production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, starring Rosabel Morrison, and under the management of Edward. J. Abraham

 
 

When artistic life in Paris resumed after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Bizet found wider opportunities for the performance of his works; his one-act opera Djamileh opened at the Opéra-Comique in May 1872. Although this failed and was withdrawn after 11 performances, it led to a further commission from the theatre, this time for a full-length opera for which Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy would provide the libretto. Halévy, who had written the text for Bizet’s student opera Le docteur Miracle (1856), was a cousin of Bizet’s wife, Geneviève; he and Meilhac had a solid reputation as the librettists of many of Jacques Offenbach‘s operettas.

Bizet was delighted with the Opéra-Comique commission, and expressed to his friend Edmund Galabert his satisfaction in “the absolute certainty of having found my path”. The subject of the projected work was a matter of discussion between composer, librettists and the Opéra-Comique management; Adolphe de Leuven, on behalf of the theatre, made several suggestions that were politely rejected. It was Bizet who first proposed an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen. Mérimée’s story is a blend of travelogue and adventure yarn, probably inspired by the writer’s lengthy travels in Spain in 1830, and had originally been published in 1845 in the journal Revue des deux Mondes. It may have been influenced in part by Alexander Pushkin‘s 1824 poem The Gypsies, a work Mérimée had translated into French; it has also been suggested that the story was developed from an incident told to Mérimée by his friend the Countess Montijo. Bizet may first have encountered the story during his Rome sojourn of 1858–60, since his journals record Mérimée as one of the writers whose works he absorbed in those years.

Carmen herself, is a new type of operatic heroine representing a new kind of love, not the innocent kind associated with the “spotless soprano” school, but something altogether more vital and dangerous. Her capriciousness, fearlessness and love of freedom are all musically represented: “She is redeemed from any suspicion of vulgarity by her qualities of courage and fatalism so vividly realised in the music”. American music critic and journalist Harold C. Schonberg likens Carmen to “a female Don Giovanni. She would rather die than be false to herself”.

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