About this Recording
8.660005-07 - BIZET, G.: Carmen (Alperyn, Lamberti, Rahbari)

Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)

Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)



Bizet's opera Carmen was first produced at the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1875. The French genre of opera-comique had arisen in the eighteenth century as a Gallic counterpart of the Italian opera bulla, injecting an air of contemporary realism into operatic form. The success of operetta in the nineteenth century offered a challenge to the form, which retained the characteristic of the German Singspiel, spoken dialogue taking the place of the recitative of opera seria or French grand opera, but increasingly lacked power or conviction. Carmen, in its original version with spoken dialogue, derived largely from Prosper Merimee's novel on which the opera was based created something of a scandal, and opened the way to a new form of opera. While nineteenth century French audiences at the Opera- Comique might find in Micaela a recognisable character, Carmen, a vicious outcast from decent society, was not the ideal heroine for popular family entertainment.


Georges Bizet was born in Paris in 1838, the son of a singing teacher. He entered the Conservatoire at the age of ten and even in childhood had some lessons, at least, from Charles Gounod, and later became a pupil of Fromental Halevy, a prolific composer of opera, whose daughter, subject like her mother to intermittent bouts of mental instability, he married in 1869. Ludovic Halevy, a cousin, collaborated on the libretto for Carmen. As a student Bizet won the expected successes, culminating, in 1857, in the first prize in the Prix de Rome, followed by three years at the Villa Medici, in accordance with the terms of the award, modified to allow him to remain in Rome for the final year, rather than move to Germany. In Paris, where he returned in September 1860 on receiving news of his mother's illness, he earned a living by hack-work for the theatre and for publishers, interspersed with more ambitious undertakings, including Les pecheurs des perles, staged with moderate success at the Opera-Comique in 1863, followed, in 1867, by La jolie fille de Perth at the Theatre-Lyrique. In 1872 the opera Djamileh, mounted at the Opera-Comique, was a failure, as was the original score for the melodrama L'arlesienne, a collaboration with Alphonse Daudet.


The projected opera on the subject of Carmen met with many difficulties. There were natural objections to the subject on the part of the theatre management, followed by further objections from singers to whom the title-role was offered. Bizet himself was constantly involved with the demands of his wife and her mother, while handling practical difficulties during rehearsals, once the work was complete, with a chorus that found difficulty in singing and acting simultaneously and an orchestra that was used to lighter fare. The librettists Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac were generally too busy to give much attention to a work they thought doomed, but did their best to modify the production to avoid offending the public. Galli-Marie, the first Carmen, and Paul Lherie, who sang the part of Don Jose, supported Bizet's intentions.


The first performance of Carmen, on 3rd March 1875, was received relatively coldly. The critics were equally shocked, condemning the licentiousness of the characters and the alleged lack of melody in a score that they considered Wagnerian in its orchestral excesses. Gounod, who had congratulated the composer on his work, confided to friends in the theatre that the only decent melodies was one filched from him, for Micaela in the third act, and the rest from Spain. There were those, however, who had some notion of what Bizet was attempting, praising this injection of realism.


There is no doubt that Carmen was at first a failure. It had a run of some 45 performances, and was able, at least as a succes de scandale, to attract the curious. The composer died on 3rd June. For years he had suffered a recurrence of a throat infection and now, weakened, it seems, by depression at the apparent failure of his new opera, he lacked the will to survive. The actual cause of Bizet's death was heart failure, coming after days of high fever, the immediate result of spending too much time in the water during a swim in the Seine. During a performance of Carmen on the day of his death, Galli-Marie had been sized by a feeling of strong foreboding, as she sang the words of the card scene - "moi d'abord, ensuite lui, pour tous les deux la mort" - and was overcome, as she left the stage. A few hours later Bizet, who had left Paris for the country air of Bougival in May, was dead.


Carmen was not repeated at the Opera-Comique until 1883, when it was performed in an emasculated version that provoked as much hostility as the earlier version. By this time the opera had won an international reputation, particularly after its production in Vienna in October, 1875, with recitatives written by Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud, and audiences in Paris had learned what to expect. In the autumn of 1883 the Paris production was revised and Galli-Marie re-engaged to sing the role she had memorably created and triumphantly repeated abroad. The opera was at last accepted by the French public as a masterpiece of French operatic repertoire.






A Prelude that includes the music associated with the Toreador Escamillo followed by the sinister Fate theme, leads to the first Act of the opera, set in Seville in a public square about the year 1820 (1). On the right is the door of a tobacco-factory and on the left a guard-house, with a bridge in the background. Morales and groups of soldiers are lounging in front of the guard-house and people come and go in the square, as the idle soldiers remark in the opening chorus (2). Morales sums up their life, killing time by smoking, chatting and watching the passers-by. He sees Micaela, a pretty village-girl, approaching, and gallantly offers to help her (3). She tells him she is looking for one of his companions, Don Jose, and is at first disappointed to find he is not there. Morales assures her that he will soon come, when they change the guard, and invites her to come into the guard-house to wait, but Micaela prudently declines, leaving Morales and his companions to wile away the time as before. A trumpet-call is heard and the soldiers line up ready for the changing of the guard, as the other contingent marches in, led by a bugler and fifer, followed by a crowd of street-urchins, then by Lieutenant Zuniga and Don Jose (4). The boys sing, playing soldiers, and Morales tells Don Jose that a girl has been looking for him, evidently Micaela. Morales marches his men away, followed by the boys, led by the bugler and fifer as before.


In a recitative Zuniga asks Don Jose if the factory is the place where the cigarette-girls work and wants to know if they are as easy on the eye as they are easy in morals. Don Jose tells him that he is not interested in women of this kind. Zuniga rightly conjectures, he is in love with Micaela. The factory-bell rings (5), a signal for the girls to stop work. Don Jose sits down, paying no attention to what is going on, but concentrating on mending the chain of his sabre. The men explain how they wait every day for the bell to ring and the girls to appear, as they now do, smoking and singing of the pleasures of tobacco and of lovers' words that disappear like smoke in the air. The fate theme marks the appearance of Carmen, the girl the men have been waiting for (6). She looks towards Don Jose and answers the propositions of the men ambiguously, going on to sing in her famous Habanera (7) of the elusive nature of love and the danger of flouting her, if she herself is in love with anyone. The young men press around her (8). She makes to return to the factory, and then turns, throwing a bunch of flowers at Don Jose's feet. The factory-bell rings again and the girls return to work and the soldiers to the guard-house, as the crowd disperses, leaving Don Jose alone. He picks up the flowers, and feels something of the bewitching power of Carmen, as Micaela approaches, sent by Don Jose's mother. In the following duet Micaela conveys her message, the kiss Don Jose's mother has sent, something that reminds him of his home village and brings him to his senses, so recently shaken by Carmen (9). Micaela gives Don Jose his mother's letter, with its suggestion that he should marry Micaela, and withdraws while he reads it (10).


Screams are heard and Zuniga demands to know what is going on. There is a fight in the factory and it seems to have been started by Carmen. Manuela has said she will buy a donkey, and Carmen has shouted that she might as well buy a broomstick, which would suit her better. The quarrel had proceeded from there, and the girls now take sides, disputing. The soldiers attempt to clear the square, and Don Jose, with two soldiers, emerges from the factory, escorting Carmen. He explains to Zuniga what has happened, how Carmen has wounded one of the girls. In reply she mocks them (11), and Zuniga threatens imprisonment and orders her hands to be tied. She tells Don Jose that he will help her escape, because he loves her, and goes on to sing her Seguidilla (12), taunting him. He tries to silence her, but in vain, and falls absolutely under her power. He understands he is to meet her at the tavern of Lillas Pastia, and now loosens her bonds. Zuniga emerges from the guard-house with orders for Don Jose to take his prisoner to headquarters (13), but she whispers to Don Jose that she will push him over, so that he may let her escape. The escort marches off with the prisoner, and Carmen does as she had threatened, pushes Don Jose over and makes her escape.



The Entr'acte reminds us of Don Jose's soldier's song (1). It is in contrast with the gypsy world of Carmen in the music that follows. The act opens in the tavern of Lillas Pastia. Carmen and her friends Frasquita and mercedes are sitting at a table with Lieutenant Zuniga and other officers, while gypsy girls dance. Carmen comes forward with her gypsy song (2), joined by Frasquita and Mercedes. In the following recitative Frasquita tells Zuniga that because of the police the tavern must close, and Zuniga asks the girls to come with them, but at a sign from Pastia they refuse. Zuniga tells Carmen of Don Jose's release, although he has been demoted. The sound of the crowd is heard, singing in praise of the toreador Escamillo (3), who now enters and replies to the toast of the company with his own triumphant celebration of the art of bull-fighting, and its concomitant triumphs in the field of love (4). Escamillo approaches Carmen and asks her name. She rejects his advances, as she does Zuniga's renewed invitation, Escamillo leaves with the officers and his followers.


Now they are alone in the tavern, Pastia calls in the two smugglers, El Dancairo and El Remendado. In the following quintet they explain that they need the help of the girls in their next enterprise, to smuggle contraband from Gibraltar (5). Carmen, however, refuses to join them, and to their astonishment claims that she is in love. In the following recitative she admits that the object of her affections is the soldier who went to prison for her, Don Jose. At this moment his voice is heard, as he sings a soldier's song, the melody that had formed the thematic substance of the Entr'acte (6). The smugglers suggest that he should be made to join them. Carmen welcomes Don Jose, who is jealous to hear that Carmen has danced for the officers. In the ensuing duet she promises to dance for him too (7), and this she does, accompanying herself on the castanets (8). As she dances, the sound of the bugle is heard, calling Don Jose back to his quarters. Carmen reproaches him, as he pleads the call of duty .Now he tells her of his love, showing her the flowers that she first threw to him and that he has treasured ever since (9). She does her utmost to persuade him to desert and to accompany her and her friends into the mountains, but he has just decided to leave her for ever, when there is a knock at the door, and the voice of Zuniga is heard, calling for Carmen (10). He forces the door and tells Don Jose to leave, the latter drawing his sword in answer to his insults. The gypsies emerge and seize Zuniga, taking his sword, and Carmen tells him he has timed his arrival ill (11). El Remendado and El Dancairo lead him out, and Carmen has now convinced her lover that he has no choice but to go with her. The act ends with a chorus praising the freedom of gypsy life.



The Entr'acte depicts the tranquil serenity of the country (1). The third act opens in the mountains. It is night, and the smugglers appear, one by one, carrying bales of contraband, and urging one another to caution (2). Their chorus is joined by Carmen, Frasquita, Mercedes and Don Jose, with El Remendado and El Dancairo. The last of these tells the others to wait there, while he finds if the way ahead is clear. Carmen questions Don Jose, who is thoughtful, and he tells her he is thinking of his mother. She tells him to go, and he threatens her. He will kill her, she tells him, since their death is in the cards. Frasquita and Mercedes start to wile away the time by mock fortune-telling from the cards (3), one predicting for herself a handsome, rich young husband, and the other an even more profitable widowhood. Carmen tries her own fortune, and ominously, as we hear in the music, turns up, diamonds and spades, the sign of death for both of them. Fate is inexorable, and each time death will appear in the cards.


El Dancairo and El Remendado return with the news that there are three customs officers whose attention must be diverted by the girls. They will find no difficulty in this task, as they explain (4). The others leave, and Don Jose remains on guard, when a guide appears, leading Micaela. She is afraid, but steels herself to meet her old lover and the woman who has seduced him (5). She calls to Don Jose, who shoots, as she takes shelter behind a rock. It is Escamillo who has drawn Don Jose's fire, and he shows Don Jose his hat, pierced by a bullet (6). He has come in pursuit of Carmen, with whom he is in love, and tells Don Jose that Carmen's love for some soldier will not last. The latter reveals himself as Carmen's soldier-lover and draws his dagger and they fight. Carmen, returning, intervenes, saving Escamillo, who has slipped and fallen (7). He thanks her, and takes his leave, inviting them all to his next corrida in Seville. Don Jose, who has tried to attack the toreador again, now turns on Carmen, threatening her. The smugglers are about to move off, when Micaela is discovered and brought forward from her hiding-place. She explains how she has come in search of Don Jose (8) and brings a plea from his mother. Carmen urges him to go, but he swears that he will die rather than leave her. Micaela tells him that his mother is near to death (9), and he must return to her. As they leave, the sound of Escamillo's voice is heard, arousing Don Jose's jealousy still further.


The Entr'acte is based on an Andalusian melody (10) and leads to the fourth act, set in a square in Seville, outside the bull-ring. The square is crowded with hawkers and those flocking to the bull-fight (11). Zuniga is there, with Frasquita and Mercedes, and to the delight of the crowd, the procession of toreros marches in (12). Escamillo appears, with Carmen at his side, hailed by those present. Turning to her, he tells her that if she loves him she will have cause to be proud of him, and she assures him of her love. The Mayor and his guards enter the amphitheatre, followed by the rest of the procession, and her friends warn Carmen not stay, for fear of Don Jose, who has been lurking in the crowd. Now they are left alone together and Carmen tells him that she has been warned to be careful. He urges her to return to him, but she is adamant in her refusal, whatever it may bring. The sound of the crowd applauding Escamillo's success is heard, exciting Carmen's admiration and provoking Don Jose's jealousy still more. She attempts to leave him, but he holds her back, one more telling him that she does not love him. The crowd is heard again from the arena, and Don Jose takes his final revenge, stabbing her to the heart, as the crowd repeats the words of the toreador's song, promising love as the reward of victory.







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