One reason that Carmen failed to catch on during its premiere run was that its musical style was not suited to conservative French taste. In this opera, Bizet was experimenting with a new musical language, one which looked forward to the Italian verismo style that was to dominate opera a few decades later in the works of Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and others.
Mention “melody,” and most people think of a musical structure that musicologists call “strophic” – second verse same as the first, or some variation of it. Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, most operas were based on this type of melody. Owing largely to the influence of Richard Wagner, however (a composer whose theoretical writings about music were as significant as the music itself), composers in the late nineteenth century began to develop forms of musical expression that were more expressive of human speech.
Wagner’s music and influence were not appreciated by the French critics, and one of the criticisms leveled against Bizet was that his music was too “Wagnerian.” These critics, however, failed to observe the significant differences between the two composers. For one thing, Wagner elevated the importance of the orchestra to where it frequently was more important than the singers, whereas, in Carmen, the vocal lines are predominant. More significantly, Wagner frequently had his characters sing in a declamatory style with no regular rhythm. (Verdi, though denying direct influence, also frequently used this style of expression.)
Bizet, on the other hand, used a fascinating combination of strophic and non-strophic music. Carmen’s gypsy melodies, Escamillo’s “Toreador Song,” and Micaëla’s third-act aria, as well as some of the other gypsy music, all depict characters. The one character who develops during the opera, Don José, is identified by non-strophic music in his one solo aria, the “Flower Song,” which achieves a remarkable sense of unity despite the fact that it never repeats a melodic phrase. Bizet’s greatest innovations can be seen in the duets in the first and last acts, in which there is a continuous flow of melody without a sense of formal musical structure. It was this approach to melody that was to become the prevalent form of musical expression in the operas of Puccini and his successors.
Another important aspect of Bizet’s music in Carmen is the use of exoticism, or “local color,” the inclusion of melodies that suggest the locale in which the opera is set. Four years earlier Verdi had written some Eastern-sounding music to evoke the Egyptian setting of Aida, but this technique was relatively new at the time. The opening section of the overture and most of the music associated with Carmen and her fellow gypsies is exotic in this sense, transporting us to an alien culture. In the years that followed, such local color became almost expected, though it should be noted that most composers have chosen to use only a smattering of local-color music to set the mood. One of the best known examples is the middle-eastern “Bacchanale” in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. Puccini made extensive use of this technique in Madama Butterfly, The Girl of the Golden West, and Turandot, evoking Japanese, American, and Chinese music, respectively. Though only a portion of the music in Carmen reflects its Spanish locale, Bizet was so successful in using it that many people think of this work as a Spanish opera rather than a French one.