History of its Creation
Now probably the most popular opera in the world, Carmen scandalised its earliest audiences with its raw depiction of lust among the low-lives of 19th-century Seville.
The first production of Carmen took place at the Opéra Comique, Paris, on the 3rd of March 1875 and, at first, was not particularly successful.
As the Opera went on, the public remained puzzled and cold. A few sympathizers ventured to applaud here and there. The Quintet and the Toreador’s Song made a favourable impression, and the prelude of the Second Act was encored. Beyond this, it was at best a success of esteem.
French audiences are essentially conservative, and Carmen came upon them like a shock. Its passionate force was miscalled brutality, and the suspicion of German influence which Bizet’s clever use of guiding themes excited, was in itself enough to alienate the sympathies of the average Frenchman in the early seventies.
Bizet, in short, had broken loose from the classical French style. His music displayed some startling, novel features, and for these the polite tastes of the French public were not prepared.
Carmen painfully reached its thirty-seventh representation.
Musical history records plenty of similar examples, but none so sad, for Bizet died three months after his Carmen has been thus coldly received, and just before it began its triumphal progress.
It was really with the first performance (in Italian) of the Opera in England that the now enormous popularity of Carmen may be said to have begun. This performance took place on the 22nd of June 1878, with Miss Minnie Hauck, the young American Prima Donna, as the exponent of the title-role.
The depictions of proletarian life, immorality and lawlessness, and the tragic outcome in which the main character dies 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 Opera was written in the genre of Opera Comique with musical numbers separated by dialogue.
Later commentators have asserted that Carmen forms the bridge between the tradition of opera comique and the realism or verismo that characterised late 19th-century Italian Opera.
In the Paris of the 1860s, although he was a ‘Prix de Rome’ laureate, Bizet struggled to get his stage works performed. The Capital’s two main state-funded opera houses – the Opera and the Opera-Comique conservative repertoires that restricted opportunities for young native talent.
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 Halevy would provide the libretto.
It was Bizet who first proposed an adaptation of Prosper Merimee’s novella Carmen. Merimee’s story is a blend of travelogue and adventure yarn, probably inspired by the writer’s lengthy travels in Spain in 1830. It may have been influenced in part by Alexander Pushkin’s 1824 poem ‘The Gypsies’, a work Merimee had translated into French.
It has also been suggested that the story was developed from an incident told to Merimee by his friend the Countess Montijo.Bizet may first have encountered the story during his Rome sojourn of 1858–60, since his journals record Merimee as one of the writers whose works he absorbed in those years.
The music of Carmen has been widely acclaimed for its brilliance of melody, harmony, atmosphere and orchestration, and for the skill with which Bizet represented, musically, the emotions and suffering of his characters.
After the composer’s death the score was subject to significant amendment, including the introduction of recitative in place of the original dialogue.
There is no standard edition of the Opera, and differences of view exist as to what versions best express Bizet’s intentions.
The Opera has been recorded many times since the first acoustical recording in 1908, and the story has been the subject of many screen and stage adaptations.
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