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Carmen Carmen
by The Ovi Team
2023-03-03 08:28:45
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March 3rd 1875; Georges Bizet's opera Carmen receives its première at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Unfortunately opening run was denounced by the majority of critics. It was almost withdrawn after its fourth or fifth performance, and although this was avoided, ultimately having 48 performances in its first run, it did little to bolster sagging receipts at the Opéra-Comique. Near the end of this run, the theatre was giving tickets away in order to stimulate attendance. Bizet died of a heart attack, aged 36, on 3 June 1875, never knowing how popular Carmen would become. In October 1875 it was produced in Vienna, to critical and popular success, which began its path to worldwide popularity. It was not staged again at the Opéra Comique until 1883.

Bizet's final opera not only transformed the opéra comique genre that had been static for half a century, it virtually killed it. Within a few years, the traditional distinction between opera (serious, heroic and declamatory) and opéra comique (light-hearted, bourgeois and conversational with spoken dialogue) disappeared. Moreover, Carmen nourished a movement that was to win both celebrity and notoriety first in Italy and then elsewhere: the cult of realism known as verismo.
The early death of Bizet, and the negligence of his immediate heirs and publisher led, as with most of Bizet's operas, to major textual problems for which scholars and performers only began to find solutions in the 1960s.


The story is set in Seville, Spain, around 1820, and concerns the eponymous Carmen, a beautiful Gypsy with a fiery temper. Free with her love, she woos the corporal Don José, an inexperienced soldier. Their relationship leads to his rejection of his former love, mutiny against his superior, and joining a gang of smugglers. His jealousy when she turns from him to the bullfighter Escamillo leads him to murder Carmen.

Camille du Locle, the artistic director of the Opéra-Comique, commissioned Bizet to write an opera based on Mérimée's novel in early 1873 to be premiered at the end of the year. However, difficulty in finding a leading lady delayed rehearsals until August 1874. Bizet bought a house at Bougival on the Seine, where he finished the piano score in the summer of 1874, and took a further two months to complete a full orchestration.

After approaching the singer Marie Roze, who declined the part, du Locle offered the part to the famous mezzo-soprano Galli-Marié. Financial negotiations over her fees ensued, and she accepted it in December 1873 (she agreed to 2,500 francs per month for four months). She apparently did not know the Mérimée novella.

During rehearsals, du Locle's assistant de Leuven voiced his discontent about the opera's plot, and pressured Bizet and the librettists to alter the tragic ending. De Leuven felt that families would be shocked to see such a "debauched" opera on the stage of the Opéra-Comique, which had a reputation as a family-friendly theatre, with many boxes used by parents to interview prospective sons-in-law. The librettists agreed to change the ending, but Bizet refused, which led directly to de Leuven's resignation from the theatre in early 1874.

The librettists had toned down some of the more extreme elements of Mérimée's novella, although it has been argued that this, and Bizet's close involvement in shaping the libretto are more to do with his wish to get closer to the Pushkin source.
Full rehearsals finally began in October 1874. The Opéra-Comique's orchestra declared the score unplayable, and the cast were having difficulty following Bizet's directions. However, the greatest opposition came from du Locle, who liked Bizet personally, but hated the opera. At this stage, the Opéra-Comique was in financial difficulties, leading du Locle to believe the opera would topple the ailing company, which had failed to produce a true success since Charles Gounod's Faust.

The librettists, for whom Carmen "had little importance" (they had four other operas on stage in Paris at that time), secretly tried to induce the singers to over-dramatise in order to lessen the impact of the work. However, much to Bizet's delight, the final rehearsals seemed to convince the majority of the company of the genius of the opera.

The first performance took place on 3 March 1875 in Paris, the same day that Bizet was awarded the Légion d'honneur. In the audience were not only various composers: Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, Léo Delibes, Charles Lecocq and Jacques Offenbach, but also singers Hortense Schneider, Zulma Bouffar, Anna Judic, Jean-Baptiste Faure; publishers such as Heugel, Choudens and Hartmann; Jules Pasdeloup, Alphonse Daudet and Dumas fils.
According to Halévy's diary, the premiere did not go well. Although there were curtain calls after Act I, and the entr'acte to Act II and Escamillo's song were applauded, Acts III and IV were greeted with silence, with the exception of Micaëla's aria in Act III. The critics were scathing, claiming that the libretto was inappropriate for the Comique. Bizet was also condemned by both sides of the Wagnerian debate, Ernest Reyer and Adolphe Jullien criticising him for not sufficiently embracing Wagner's style, while others condemned him for making the orchestra more important than the voices.

However, a few critics, such as Joncières and the poet Théodore de Banville, praised the work for its innovation. Banville lauded the librettists for writing characters that were more realistic than those normally seen at the Opéra-Comique. Nevertheless, with the negative reviews, the opera struggled to make 48 performances in the first production and closed the following January. Towards the end of the run, the management was giving away tickets wholesale in a vain attempt to fill the seats. D'Indy, who had been engaged early in the run to play a harmonium offstage to keep Lhérie in tune for "Halte-la, dragons d'Alcala!" in Act II, saw the audiences gradually dwindle up to the last night, 15 February 1876.

Bizet did not live to see the success of his opera: he died on 3 June, just after the thirtieth performance. The day before his death he signed a contract for a Viennese production of Carmen. Before long three leading composers in Europe would be counted among his admirers: Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Friedrich Nietzsche (in The Case of Wagner) hailed Bizet and exalted the exotic elements of the score, as well as its structural clarity: "it builds, organizes, finishes."

At this second production at the Hofoper in Vienna on 23 October 1875, the public had no stake in the traditions of the Opéra-Comique or the genre, and on the home turf of German music nothing recalled Wagner in the least, so they were able to appreciate Carmen on its own terms.

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