FRENCH COMPOSER GEORGE BIZET’S FOUR ACT OPERA
HAS BECOME ONE OF THE WORLD’S FAVOURITES WITH ITS DRAMATIC STORYLINE AND MAGNIFICENT MUSIC.


Basing their work on Prosper Merimee’s novella, librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy created a timeless tale of love, jealousy and violence set in 19th century Seville.

It tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by Carmen, a provocative and free-spirited femme fatale. José abandons his childhood sweetheart Michaela and deserts the army. Despite this he finally loses Carmen’s love to the glamorous toreador Escamillo. In a fit of jealous rage José kills Carmen, bringing the opera to a dramatic and tragic end.

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.

The Toreador Song in Act II is among the best known of all operatic arias.

Carmen is an opera that particularly appeals to young people andhas been a universal favourite since its creation.

THE OPERA’S HISTORY


Now probably the most popular opera in the world, Carmen scandalised its earliest audiences with its raw depiction of lust among the poor and dispossessed of 19th-century Seville.

During its first production at the Opéra Comique in March 1875 much of the public was puzzled and indifferent although a few well-wishers ventured to applaud occasionally. The Quintet and the Toreador’s Song made favourable impressions and the prelude of the Act II was encored. However, apart from that the evening could not have been called a success.

French audiences were essentially conservative and Carmen burst upon them like a storm. Its passionate force was mistakenly labelled as brutality. Furthermore, the suspected German influence which Bizet’s clever use of guiding themes implied was in itself enough to alienate the sympathies of the average Frenchman in the early 1870s so soon after the Franco-Prussian war.

Bizet, with his masterpiece, had managed to break loose from the classical French style. His music displayed startling and novel features for which the polite tastes of the French public were not prepared. Carmen limped on but closed after only thirty-seven performances.

Musical history records plenty of similar examples but few so sad as Bizet died only three months after his Carmen has been so coldly received and just a short time before it began to receive the praise and success it deserved.

But with the first performance (in Italian) of the Carmen in England its ever increasing popularity truly began. This performance took place on the 22nd June 1878 with Miss Minnie Hauck, the young American Prima Donna, performing the role of the eponymous heroine.

The highly controversial portrayal of proletarian life, immorality and lawlessness, as well as the main character’s tragic death on stage, broke new ground in French opera.

After the premiere, most reviews were critical and the French public remained 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 opéra comique, with musical numbers separated by dialogue. Later commentators have claimed that Carmen forms the bridge between the tradition of opéra 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 French capital’s two main state-funded opera houses − the Opera and the Opera-Comique performed conservative repertoires that afforded few 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.

Despite Djamileh failing in 1872 it led to a further commission from the Opera-Comique, this time for a full-length piece for which Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy would provide the libretto.

It was Bizet who first proposed an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen. Mérimée’s story is a blend of travelogue and adventure, 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 Mérimée had translated into French.

It has also been suggested that the story was developed from an incident recounted to Mérimée by his friend the Countess Montijo. Bizet may first have encountered the story during his Rome sojourn of 1858–60, since his journals record Mérimée as one of the writers whose works fascinated him during those years.

After the composer’s death the score of Carmen was subject to significant amendments, including the introduction of recitative in place of the original dialogue.

There is no standard edition of the opera. Differences of opinion exist as to which versions best express Bizet’s intentions.

Carmen has been recorded many times since the first acoustic recording in 1908 and, over the years, the story has been the subject of many screen and stage adaptations.

GEORGES BIZET


Composer and virtuoso pianist, Georges Bizet of the French romantic era achieved little success before his final work Carmen was produced. Since then the opera has become one of the most frequently performed and popular in the world.

Bizet was born in Paris in 1838 and entered the Conservatoire de Paris ten years later, graduating in 1857. Encouraged by his composition teacher, Fromental Halévy, he entered for the prestigious Music Composition scholarship Prix de Rome in 1856 and was awarded Second Prize. Prior to going to Rome he was awarded joint first prize for Le Docteur Miracle, a one-act operetta.

On his return to Paris in 1860, he began many theatrical projects including, in 1863, Les Pêcheurs de Perles. This was followed in July 1866 by La Jolie Fille de Perth which was based on the Sir Walter Scott novel The Fair Maid of Perth.

When artistic life in Paris resumed after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Georges Bizet found wider opportunities for the performance of his works, such as L’Arlésienne, based on the Alphonse Daudet’s play.

His one-act Opera Djamileh opened at the Opéra-Comique in May 1872. Although withdrawn after only eleven performances, it led to a further commission for the full-length opera Carmen, for which Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy would provide the libretto.

Bizet began the music for Carmen in the summer of 1873, but the Opéra Comique’s management was concerned about the suitability of such a risqué story and work was suspended. After resolving numerous issues, the premiere finally took place on 3rd March 1875.

The public reaction was lukewarm and Bizet believed his masterpiece to have been a failure.

After the promise of his early years, Bizet spent the remainder of his life plagued by lack of self-confidence, illness and emotional upheaval. He died on 3rd June 1875 in Paris at the age of 37, never gaining the success and recognition his undoubted genius deserved and too soon to experience the public acclaim for his masterpiece Carmen.

The following October the opera received its debut in Vienna and its success was immediate. However, the music world did not immediately acknowledge Bizet as a master and, apart from Carmen and the L’Arlesienne suite, few of his works were performed in the years immediately following his death. Finally, in the 20th century interest in his work began to grow.

An Italian version of Les Pêcheurs de Perles was performed at the Metropolitain Opera in New York on 13th November 1916, with Caruso in the leading role.

Chatham Central Theatre
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