The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Carmen Plot Outline

Overture

The overture opens with a brisk Spanish-sounding melody, accentuated with loud clashing cymbals, and crashing chords that seem to suggest a culture that is out of control. Interspersed in this section is the now famous “Toreador Song.” Suddenly the mood changes, and an ominous melody is heard over some tremolo string notes. This is the “fate theme,” which will reappear several times during the opera.


ACT I

A public square in Seville
Without a pause, the curtain opens on a group of townspeople, along with a regiment of soldiers, who sing blissfully about their lack of anything meaningful to do. To the sound of seductive music, Micaëla, a pretty young country girl, enters. She tells the soldiers that she is looking for Don José, and they reply that he will be on duty shortly. They flirt with her, but she rebuffs them, echoing their music, and she replies that she will return later when Don José will be there.

A marching tune is heard, and Don José’s unit enters to take their turn on guard duty. A group of children march behind them, imitating their soldier heroes, and their admiration provides an ironic contrast to what we see of the soldiers’ actual behavior. Along with the townspeople, the soldiers eagerly await break time at the local factory, when the female workers will come out for a breath of fresh air and a smoke (scandalous behavior for women at that time). Don José expresses his lack of interest in that type of woman. The men are especially anxious to see Carmen, and when she arrives, they all proposition her.

Carmen’s response is the famous “Habanera,” in which she expresses her desire to remain free as a bird. This melody, based on a Cuban folk tune arranged by a Spanish composer, is part of Bizet’s local color music, and it helps establish Carmen not only as an assertive woman but as a force of nature. Suddenly, time seems to stand still as she notices Don José, and we hear the “fate theme” in the orchestra. Something bad is going to happen, but the characters don’t know it. Carmen throws a flower at José, and he picks it up as she leaves, while her coworkers mockingly echo the “Habanera.”

Micaëla enters, and Don José quickly hides the flower. In contrast to the music we have heard from Carmen, the duet which follows is definitely French in style, and it provides the first example of the free-flowing, conversational style of music with which Bizet was experimenting, one melody blending into the next. Micaëla has come to tell Don José that his mother has forgiven the misdeeds which caused him to leave home; more importantly, she has playfully asked Micaëla to deliver a kiss for her son, which she does. Don José overlooks the implied eroticism of the moment and takes it as a kiss from his mother. Micaëla leaves, and Don José resolves to obey his mother’s wishes and marry Micaëla someday.

Offstage, a fight has broken out in the factory, and Don José is called upon to investigate. It turns out that Carmen has attacked one of her co-workers, but when she is questioned she defiantly sings “tra-la-la” and refuses to answer. Zuniga, the commanding officer, leaves her in Don José’s custody as he goes to get a warrant for her arrest. Alone with Don José, Carmen sings the “Seguidilla,” to the sort of seductive gypsy melody we have come to associate with this character. Having noticed that Don José has kept her flower, she tells him that if he helps her escape he can join her at Lillas Pastia’s tavern. Secretly, he unties her hands. As he leads her off to prison, she frees her hands, shoves him to the ground, and escapes. Zuniga, however, sees through the ruse, and he arrests Don José as the curtain falls.


ACT II

Lillas Pastia’s tavern
After a brief entr’acte (music between acts) based on an actual Spanish folk melody, the curtain opens on Lillas Pastia’s tavern. Carmen leads Mercédès, Frasquita and the other gypsies in a lively song and dance praising the gypsy life style. Zuniga has been courting Carmen, but she rebuffs him because she is waiting for Don José.

A number of patrons arrive, and among them is Escamillo, the bullfighter who is Spain’s top star athlete. In the braggadocio style we would associate with today’s athletes, he sings his famous “Toreador Song,” describing the challenges of his profession and the rewards –­ primarily his ability to pick up women. At the conclusion of the aria, Mercédès, Frasquita, and Carmen all join the refrain on the word “amour,” with Carmen getting the last word a seductive octave lower, suggesting that while she loves Don José, she is already thinking about her next affair. The music assigned to Escamillo has none of the subtlety of the music sung by the other characters, and Bizet at one point referred to it as “trash.” But Bizet apparently wrote more brilliantly than he realized, for though this may not be great music, the straightforward melody is perfect in its depiction of this uncomplicated character.

Escamillo leaves, followed by his fans and Zuniga, who accepts Carmen’s rebuff for the moment. The gypsies are now alone. In a lively quintet, the two leaders of a gypsy smuggling ring, Dancairo and Remendado, describe their next venture to the three women and explain that the women’s sex appeal would help them provide the diversionary action that they need to carry out their plans. Mercédès and Frasquita are agreeable, but Carmen is determined to wait at the inn for her lover, Don José. This number, with its rapid back-and-forth dialogue, provides the one comic scene in the opera, and the style of music seems to have been of the type familiar to audiences of the Opéra-Comique, where Carmen had its premiere.

Don José enters, singing a folk tune. Carmen greets him and dances for him to a seductive gypsy melody. Ironically, the bugles from his regiment create a counter-melody to hers, and Don José tells her that he must return to his post. Carmen cannot understand his dedication to duty and accuses him of not truly loving her. Her phrase “taratara” that sarcastically describes his slavish devotion contrasts sharply with her “tra-la-las,” which symbolize her freedom. In response, Don José sings the lyrical “Flower Song.” He tells her of his month in prison and shows her that he has kept her flower throughout his ordeal. Unlike the music we have heard from Carmen, this is a free-flowing melody, with no repetition of musical phrases.

Carmen continues to entice him to stay, suggesting that he would enjoy life as a gypsy. Zuniga enters, still in pursuit of Carmen, and he orders Don José to return to the barracks. Impulsively, Don José refuses, drawing his sword. The confrontation between the two men is short-lived, as the gypsies come to Don José’s rescue. Don José realizes that he now has no choice but to join the
gypsy band, and the gypsies welcome him to his new, free life.


ACT III

An encampment in the mountains
Outside of the city, a pastoral melody featuring the harp and flute suggests a peaceful outdoor setting, though the events to follow will be anything but peaceful. The curtain opens on the band of gypsies, who sing of the pleasures of their smuggling trade to a march-like tune. The peacefulness of this scene is interrupted by the entrance of Don José and Carmen, who are quarreling. Don José tells her that he is feeling guilty about betraying his mother’s wishes, as we hear the melody associated with her in his first-act duet with Micaëla. Nevertheless, he tells Carmen that he will never let her leave him, and she asks if he plans to kill her (the “fate theme” is heard in the orchestra). Don José goes off to rest.

Frasquita and Mercédès decide to pass the time by dealing some cards to tell their fortunes. Mercédès sees a handsome young lover in her future, while the more practical Frasquita envisions a rich old man who will die and leave her a wealthy widow. Carmen deals herself a hand, and she is frightened to learn that, no matter how many times she re-deals, the cards are predicting death for both her and Don José. In a solemn aria she reflects on humankind’s inability to escape its fate. As she concludes, the other two women reprise their playful tune as an ironic counterpoint to Carmen’s solemn melody.

Dancairo and Remendado enter and announce a plan for the gypsies to sneak into town to peddle their contraband, using the women as a diversion (as they explained in the previous act). Don José is left behind to guard the camp.

Out of Don José’s sight, Micaëla enters, led by a mountain guide. In a beautiful aria (which has become a favorite recital piece for many sopranos), she tells how she has conquered her fears to search for Don José. She prays to God for protection, an act that clearly associates her with the value system that Don José has left behind.

Next to enter is Escamillo, and not seeing who it is, Don José fires a shot. Not knowing Don José’s identity, Escamillo explains that he has come looking for Carmen, and that he is confident that her affair with the military deserter must be over by now. Don José challenges him to a knife fight, but Carmen enters just in time to save Escamillo’s life. Issuing an invitation to everyone – especially Carmen – to attend his next appearance in the bullfighting ring, he exits to the accompaniment of his second-act aria; only here, the tone is less strident and more romantic.

Micaëla, who has been hiding, is discovered. Echoing the Act One music that described Don José’s mother, she asks him to return home (this device – reprising snatches of melody to recall earlier events – was a favorite device of the Italian verismo composers but was not used much prior to this opera). Don José, however, is still obsessed with Carmen, and again we hear the fate theme. Finally, Micaëla tells Don José the real reason for her visit: his mother is dying and has asked to see her son one more time. He agrees to leave, but he warns Carmen that they will meet again. Offstage, we hear Escamillo singing his “Toreador Song” as the curtain falls.


ACT IV

Outside the bullring
The final act of this opera begins with no hint of the tragedy that will ensue. The scene looks like a 19th century version of a tailgate party, as a crowd anxiously anticipates the day’s bullfight. A group of gypsies dance to entertain the onlookers. As the various ranks of bullfighters arrive, the chorus greets them with the melody that opened the overture, and Escamillo is greeted by the tune of his own song. He greets Carmen, and the two sing a love duet. Escamillo enters the arena. Mercédès and Frasquita approach Carmen and warn her that Don José has escaped arrest and may be looking for her, but she ignores their warnings.

Carmen is left alone on stage, and Don José approaches her. The extended dialogue, moving seamlessly from one melody to another as the music follows the dialogue, is one of the greatest dramatic duets in all of opera. The confrontation is driven by a sense of fate. Carmen greets Don José with the words “C’est toi?” “ (“Is it you?”), as if she has been waiting for this meeting, and on a number of occasions she refers to herself in the third person, as if she is no longer involved in the scene. Don José begs Carmen to run away with him, to start a new life together, but she informs him that she no longer loves him. He continues to beg and implore her, insisting that he loves her more than ever.

Finally, she takes off the ring he had given her and flings it at him, shouting “Tiens” (This means “take it,” but no English translation could capture the contempt expressed in this nasal French word). Having earlier said that his love could save the two of them, Don José now shouts “damnée” and stabs her to death. Bizet’s audience would certainly have been aware of Gounod’s Faust, in which Méphistophélès uses a single word – “jugée” – to announce the heroine’s damnation. Here, unlike the situation in Faust there is no choir of angels proclaiming her salvation – only the crowd in the bull ring, with biting irony, cheering the bull fight, unaware of the tragedy unfolding outside. This ironic contrast of moods was a technique that was to be employed in later years in verismo operas, most notably in I Pagliacci.

Finally, the “fate theme” is repeated three times in the orchestra as people begin to emerge from the arena. Don José surrenders to the authorities, proclaiming his undying love for the woman he has just killed, as the curtain falls.

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