Bizet’s Carmen is a real jewel of music theatre, an unattainable pinnacle and a unique phenomenon of French opera. It is faultless: this opera miraculously amalgamated all the ingredients for an incredible success.
In the XIX century the plot of Prosper Mérimée’s novelle of the same title seemed absolutely unthinkable for the operatic stage. Though the audience had already accepted the high-society courtesan from Verdi’s Traviata and the light-minded Manon Lescaut, never before had opera gone down to such social bottom – the lives of rejected by society Gypsies and smugglers. The libretto of Carmen was expertly written by the experienced dramatists Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, the authors of the texts for the most famous Offenbach’s operettas. 35-year old Bizet had been catastrophically unlucky with the literary components of his works. In spite of their considerable musical merits, all his previous operas – The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles), The Fair Maid of Perth (La jolie fille de Perth), Djamileh, Ivan the Terrible – had not been included into theatrical repertoires due to their stilted and at times even absurd plot.
The life story of the freedom-loving Gypsy woman, captivating men with her beauty and sensuality, has everything: sufferings, seductions, rage and dramatism. This allowed Bizet to present the audience with a new type of opera which didn’t relate to historic events, had no pathos or solemnity. Instead it depicted real life in all its manifestations.
In Carmen Bizet acted as a real innovator of his time. Through brilliant application of laconic artistic techniques the composer achieved astounding effects. Having never been to Spain himself, Bizet managed to capture characteristic features of Spanish national music so subtly that the Seville flair created by him in the opera immediately immerges the spectators into this exotic and fascinating world. Choral tasks also turned out to be new for the opera theatre: in Carmen the chorus is not just a crowd but characters actively engaged in the performance. Besides, the composer’s brave decision to give a solo number to the children’s chorus not only compelled admiration of the audience but also inspired Piotr Tchaikovsky to introduce a similar scene into his own opera The Queen of Spades. It is against the background of vibrant crowd scenes and noisy public celebrations that the truly tragic climax to relationship between the main characters is revealed.
As I. Solletinsky noted, the opera Carmen is “an excellent example of a combination of immense richness of musical content and a truly mass force of musical impact.” Its fantastic, immediately etching in memory melodies are familiar even to those who has never been to an opera theatre. The entire Carmen – from the brilliant overture, famous Habanera and torrid Seguidilla, the effective Toreador’s Song, lyrical arias of José and Micaëla and to orchestral entracts – is full of real musical “hits” ensuring opera’s stable high ratings among the most popular and most frequently performed pieces of music in the world. Numerous ballet and cinema productions of Carmen as well as Carmen – related mass media publications reflect the fact that Bizet’s Carmen is not just a favourite of operatic repertoire but “the all-time artistic myth” (M. Muginstein).