When she’s not making cigarettes at the factory in Seville, Carmen is busy making trouble. This gypsy should come with a warning label! Unfortunately, naïve army corporal, Don José, is out of the loop. Boy meets girl and becomes so besotted that he wrecks his career and his life for her. When she drops him for the next man to come along—a dashing Toreador—her fancy decides her fate. Bizet’s masterpiece is the perfect combination of passion and drama, featuring the most seductive score in opera!
Sultry mezzo-soprano Ginger Acosta Jackson makes her mainstage debut as opera’s most notorious vixen while Dinyar Vania and Ryan Kuster fight for her affections on stage as the smitten solider and his bullfighting rival. Corrine Winters gets caught in the middle of this triangle as girl-next-door, Micaëla. This never-before-seen production also heralds the return of two creative masterminds to Virginia Opera: conductor John DeMain (Aida, 2011) and director Tazewell Thompson (The Pearl Fishers, 2012).
Moralès and the other soldiers stand about in a public square in Seville, waiting for the change of the guard. A young woman, Michaëla, arrives, looking for a soldier named Don José. He will not arrive until the next shift, and timid of waiting with the soldiers, she runs off.
A trumpet sounds, announcing the changing of the guard, which includes Don José. Zuringa, the lieutenant, wants to know more about the girls who work in the tobacco factory. José knows that they are “of easy virtue,” but as far as being pretty, he hasn’t noticed – his thoughts are on the lovely Michaëla, who is an orphan brought up by José’s mother.
The factory bell rings, and the girls emerge to exchange words and flirt with the men gathered outside. Many of the men wait for one woman—the entrancing gypsy, Carmen. Carmen appears, singing of the transitory nature of love, that it is something to be sized as it passes. She tosses a flower at the one man who is not paying attention to her—José.
The bell rings again, and the women retreat back to the factory. Michaela returns, and finds José. She has a letter from his mother, but she cannot stay to watch him read it – it asks Jose to marry Michaela. He has resolved to do as his mother wishes, when there is a commotion from inside the factory. Amidst the confusion it becomes clear that a fight broke out, and Carmen has wounded one of the other women. Carmen refuses to speak to the soldiers, and Zuringa orders José to take her to jail. She starts to seduce José, describing how they will dance together at Lillas Pastia’s tavern. José cannot resist her, and agrees to help her escape. Loosening the ropes around her wrists, he falls when she pushes him, and she runs off, laughing.
It is about two months later. Carmen, Frasquita, and Mercédès are in Lillas Pastia’s tavern with some soldiers, including Zuringa and Moralés. The bar is closing, and the soldiers ask the women to accompany them to the theater, but the women refuse. Zuringa tells Carmen that Don José was demoted and arrested because of her escape, but that he was let go just that day.
From outside, celebrations can be heard – the townspeople are cheering for the bullfighter Escamillo. Escamillo enters the bar, and extolls the glory of the fight between man and beast. He approaches Carmen, but she brushes him off, and he and Zuringa and the crowd leave.
The smugglers El Remendado and Le Dencaïre enter – they wish Carmen and her friends to help them with a big job. Carmen says she cannot leave – she is waiting for a man she loves. The smugglers beseech her – she is integral to their plan. She still refuses, but says she will try and persuade Don José to join them all.
Don José enters, and declares his love for Carmen. But then the bell tolls, and he says he must return to his barracks. She taunts him, saying if he loved her, he would defy his rank and stay with her. He protests, but then Zuringa returns. He and José begin to fight over Carmen, and she calls for her friends to help them. They take Zuringa captive, and José has no choice but to follow.
Several months later, and the band of smugglers is returning to their lair in the mountains. Carmen and José are fighting – he looks down at Seville and laments having betrayed his mother’s trust; Carmen says that perhaps it would be better if he left. José gets angry and threatens Carmen, she brushes him off and goes to read fortunes in cards with Mercédès and Frasquita. They both see love in the cards, but Carmen sees only death, for both her and José.
José stays behind to guard the spoils as the others depart for another opportunity. Michaëla approaches, having faced her fears and found the smugglers hideout. She calls out and José fires his rifle, forcing Michaëla to duck behind a rock to avoid being shot. At that moment, Escamillo enters – he also narrowly avoided the bullet. José questions what the bullfighter is doing there. Escamillo has come seeking his love – the gypsy Carmen. Jose reveals himself as Carmen’s lover, and the two men fight. It is broken up when the smugglers return. Escamillo departs, inviting them to the bullfight the next week, saying that those who love him will attend.
The smugglers find Michaëla hiding in the bushes. She begs José to return home with her, and Carmen agrees that he should leave. José is so consumed by anger at Carmen that at first he refuses. But when he hears that his mother is dying, he relents and goes with Michaëla, but not without a parting threat –Carmen may think she has won, but they will meet again.
A crowd has gathered in front of the bullring, awaiting the famous bullfighter. Escamillo enters, with Carmen at his side. Escamillo asks Carmen to watch him win, and she declares that she will, and that she has never loved anyone as she loves him. Escamillo goes inside, and Frasquita and Mercédès come to warn Carmen – Don José is hiding in the crowd. She laughs them off, saying that she will run from no man.
When the street empties, José approaches Carmen. He begs her to put aside the past and run away with him. She refuses, and tells him that she no longer loves him. He refuses to believe her, and when hearing the crowds shouting inside the arena, demands that Carmen tell him to his face that she loves Escamillo. She does and throws a ring that José had given her at him. José pulls out a knife and stabs Carmen. Standing over her, he awaits is arrest.
– Claire Marie Blaustein
Georges Bizet, born October 25, 1838, was named Alexandre César Léopold Bizet. However, he was christened “Georges” and that became the name he used. Like many other well-known composers he was born into a musical family. His father, Adolphe Bizet, was a voice teacher. His mother came from the famous musical family Delsarte and was an excellent pianist. Georges’ uncle, Francois Delsarte, was a celebrated singer. It came as no surprise when Georges showed signs of musical talent at a very early age. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine.
He quickly rose to prominence in the school. His most important teacher was Jacques Halévy, who taught Charles Gounod, and was a prominent opera composer. Bizet was mentored by Gounod as well. At age eighteen he competed for the coveted Prix de Rome. The judges awarded no first prize that year and Bizet won second prize. He entered again the following year, 1857, and won. The Prix de Rome, founded in 1666 by Louis XIV, was a scholarship that could be awarded to musicians, painters, sculptors or architects. In the 1850s the winner spent time abroad, particularly in Rome, studying in their field. In addition, living expenses were provided for five years. At the end of each year the student had to submit a specified work so that the judges could determine their progress. Other famous Prix winners were Berlioz, Massenet, Gounod and Debussy.
In 1857, Bizet departed for Rome and spent three years there. He studied the landscape, the culture, Italian literature and art. Musically he studied the scores of the great masters. At the end of the first year he was asked to submit a religious work as his required composition. As a self-described atheist, Bizet felt uneasy and hypocritical writing a religious piece. Instead, he submitted a comic opera. Publicly, the committee accepted, acknowledging his musical talent. Privately, the committee conveyed their displeasure. Thus, early in his career, Bizet displayed an independent spirit that would be reflected in innovative ideas in his opera composition.
When Bizet returned to Paris and became self-supporting, he composed, gave piano lessons, produced orchestrations and piano transcriptions and wrote operas. Financially, he found his chosen profession “a splendid art, but a sad trade.” He endured no less than five operatic failures before writing Carmen, but his critics clearly recognized his abilities as a composer. In 1867 he became engaged briefly to Géneviève Halévy, the daughter of the noted composer of La Juive, his former teacher at the Paris Conservatory. The family of Bizet’s mother objected to the marriage because the Halévy’s were Jewish and the Halévy family objected because of Bizet’s atheism, bohemian lifestyle and financial irresponsibility. The two finally married in 1869 but it was not to be a happy marriage. A son was born in 1872.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 spurred Bizet’s patriot spirit and he joined the National Guard in defense of Paris. The war also had an effect on the opera world. Prior to the war, composer Jacques Offenbach had reigned in Paris. After the war, his light-hearted satires were no longer as appealing to the Parisians. Bizet was asked to write a one-act comic opera for the Opera-Comique in 1872. It was a failure, but the work won high praise for its music. As a result Bizet was commissioned to write a full, three-act opera by the Opera-Comique. The libretto was to be furnished by Ludovic Halévy, Géneviève’s cousin, and Henri Meilhac, a very popular libretto team of the time. The novel Carmen by Prosper Mérimée was chosen as the source for the opera. This “nouvelle,” written in 1845, contained sex, dishonor and murder. The management of the Comique was very unhappy with the subject matter. Their patrons were used to respectable family entertainment. Blatant sexuality and a violent on-stage murder had never been seen on the stage of the Comique.
Bizet was enthusiastic and took an active part in writing the libretto. He was committed to the realistic nature of the characters and the plot. Bizet’s music captured the exoticism and flair of Spain while remaining true to his lyrical French roots. His brilliant orchestration and originality brought a new dimension to the operatic stage. By the time the opera went into rehearsal a furor had arisen over it. Management tried to change the ending and newspapers were suggesting that the Opera-Comique would no longer be a family theater. In rehearsal chorus members were unhappy being asked to move about the stage freely and act while they sang. The orchestra found the music “unplayable.” By the night of the opening, however, everyone involved with the production was fully supportive.
On March 3, 1875, the opera had its premiere. It was deemed a colossal failure. Bizet’s music was assailed, the character Carmen was too lewd and the whole event was too sordid for the respectable public. It did have forty-eight performances, but played to smaller and smaller audiences. Bizet’s health, never robust, suffered, and he became depressed. Georges Bizet died at his country estate on June 3, 1875, believing he was a failure. It was three months to the day of the opera’s premiere, and it was also his sixth wedding anniversary. He was thirty-six years old. Four thousand people attended his funeral, and Charles Gounod served as one of the pallbearers.
France was the operatic capitol of Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century. During this period a type of musical drama was established that came to be known as “grand opera.” This term helped to differentiate it from the less serious or more melodramatic opéra comique which had spoken dialogue in between the musical numbers. In addition to sung dialogue, called recitative, grand opera had other essential features. These included subject matter of a serious and heroic nature, and a grandiose treatment of the subject with regard to singing, instrumental music and staging. Over time, opéra comique broadened its scope to include more serious subjects, but the tradition of spoken dialogue remained. As the century progressed, grand opera became somewhat more predictable and less original and the opéra comique became the venue for the introduction of new and more innovative works. This was particularly true after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 which shocked the French body politic and created ripple effects that reached into the world of opera.
Literary trends in France also had an impact on the arts and eventually, opera librettos. In a reaction to the prevailing spirit of Romanticism there was a desire to challenge idealism and replace it with realism. Eventually, literary realism evolved into a movement called naturalism. These developments resulted in vérisme opera in France and eventually, verismo opera in Italy. There was a desire by writers, artists and opera composers to portray everyday life, the common man in his personal struggles, and even those who were considered immoral or degenerate.
The opera Carmen is based on a literary work, the novella “Carmen” by Prosper Mérimée. It was written in 1845 and is an early example of realism. In addition to its unsentimental view of its characters’ lives, it contained other elements that fascinated the public, such as the allure of the foreign and the exotic. Its setting was in southern Spain and the main character was a gypsy, which highlighted an ethnic group the public found titillating. Mérimée used the framing device of a narrator, and his characters were coarse and unscrupulous. Carmen herself was a thief and the leader of a band of smugglers and bandits, of whom Don José was a member.
When Bizet was commissioned by the Opera-Comique theater to write a full-length opera in 1873, he actively pushed for the Mérimée novella to be used as the basis for the libretto. He worked closely with the librettists, Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, to shape the libretto, even writing some of the words himself. The resulting opera differed from Mérimée’s story in several ways. The realist setting was retained but the narrator was eliminated. The Carmen character became one of the smugglers, not the leader, and her criminal activities were minimized. She was portrayed more as a femme fatale and in many ways her character was ennobled. The role of Don José was also softened, showing his downfall and making him more of a victim. The characters Micaëla and Escamillo were created to serve as foils for Carmen and Don José. These changes streamlined the story and heightened the drama.
In the opera, Bizet clearly defines Carmen as a woman who had deliberately thought through her philosophy of life and refuses to depart from it. For Carmen, to be free and independent is primary. She has rejected all restraints of accepted society. The fact that Carmen is a gypsy reinforces this independent, outside-respected-society image. Conversely, Don José has been raised in a small village with a strict, moral upbringing. For him marriage is a commitment by two people to be faithful to one another. The conflict between them arises when Don José is confronted with Carmen’s philosophy, which is in direct opposition to his own. The introduction of Micaëla and Escamillo sharpen this conflict.
Micaëla represents the moral society in which Don José was raised and symbolizes his ideal woman. Don José feels great passion for Carmen but also wants the same relationship with her that he might have had with Micaëla. Carmen does not share his values and therein lies Don José’s downfall. Escamillo is Carmen’s ideal lover. He is patient and does not require her eternal faithfulness. He adores her but doesn’t need to possess her. The opera Carmen is more about the downfall or transformation of Don José than about Carmen herself. Even though Carmen is the central focus of the opera, she is the catalyst that undermines Don José’s life.
Some of these changes were a result of the needs of stage adaptation and the intent of the librettists and composer to be true to their art and present a work of significance. Other changes, however, were clearly an attempt to fashion a plot that would be acceptable to the patrons of the Opéra-Comique. Unfortunately, the brilliance of the opera, its directness, its characterizations and its musical realism was too much for the opening night audience, the critics and even Parisian society at large.
The failure of this early example of French vérisme opera and its subject matter has been well-documented. After the end of the fourth act (an act received in icy silence by the audience), Bizet walked the streets of Paris all night, frustrated by the public’s inability to understand his music and what he was trying to achieve. He retired to the country, depressed by the outpouring of criticism, and believed his greatest work was a failure. Within three months he was dead, having suffered two heart attacks.
Interest in the opera was not dead, however. Many famous composers were effusive in their praise. Some in the musical community felt the opera might be better received as a grand opera. A fellow composer and friend of Bizet, Ernest Guiraud, composed recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue so that Carmen could be presented as a grand opera for its premiere at the State Opera House in Vienna on October 23, 1875. In little more than four months after Bizet’s untimely death, his opera was a resounding success. Carmen had been produced in Vienna as a spectacle, with a ballet added in Act IV using music from another Bizet opera, as well as an expanded bullfighters procession. The composer Johannes Brahms saw the Viennese production twenty times and was fulsome in his praise. Soon afterward the opera was presented in Brussels with the newly-composed recitatives but without the extra ballet and spectacle. Again, it was a sensation. In the next few years Carmen made the rounds of the great opera houses of the world before returning to success in Paris eight years later.
The triumph of Bizet’s Carmen had been predicted by a towering figure of the music world, the Russian composer Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky. He had seen an early performance of Carmen and stated in a letter, “Carmen is a masterpiece in every sense of the word; that is to say, one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch….I am convinced that in ten years Carmen will be the most popular opera in the whole world.” Those prophetic words have been borne out by history.
Carmen • Ginger Costa-Jackson
Don Jose • Dinyar Vania
Escamillio • Ryan Kuster
Micaela • Corinne Winters
Zuniga • Matthew Scollin
Morales • Hunter Enoch
Frasquita • Jeni Houser
Mercedes • Courtney Miller
Le Remendado • David Blalock
Le Dancaire • Andre Chiang
Lilias Pastia • Bryan Dunoon
A Gypsy • Adrian Smith
A Vendor • Shannon Jennings
Conductor • John DeMain
Director • Tazewell Thompson
Set Designer • Donald Eastman
Costume Designer • Merrily Murray-Walsh
Lighting Designer • Robert Wierzel
Wig and Makeup Designer • James McGough