GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875) Suite No 1: Carmen (1875)

i.   Prélude – Aragonaise
ii.   Intermezzo
iii.  Séguedille
iv.  Les Dragons d’AlcaIa
v.  Les Toréadors

It is surely one of the greater musical tragedies that Bizet died thinking that his great work Carmen was destined to be a failure. Having been commissioned in 1872 to write an opera for the Opera-Comique to follow up other operatic ventures such as La Jolie Fille du Perth and Les Pecheurs du Perles (The Pearl Fishers), none of which had been greatly successful, Bizet chose to adapt a somewhat controversial 1846 novel by Prosper Mérimée about Carmen, a free spirit whose outrageous dalliances result in her murder by Don Jose, soldier turned smuggler. Bizet was assisted with the libretto by Meilhac and Halévy, whose adaptation attempted to make Carmen’s fickleness a little more acceptable to the at-that-time somewhat reserved French public by making her unmarried, and added a foil for Carmen’s behaviour with the character of the virginal Micaela.

The opera was completed late in 1874, but the first performance, on 3 March 1875, was little short of a disaster, the subject matter perceived as worthy only of the gutter. Despite an initial run of 48 performances critical reaction was hostile, and Bizet descended into depression, dying from a heart attack exactly three months after the premiere at the age of 36. If he had only lived another year he would have seen Carmen circulate round Europe and at last find popularity in France. Brahms, who wrote nothing operatic himself, was transfixed by it and saw some twenty performances, while Tchaikovsky predicted that it would become the world’s most popular opera, and even Wagner admitted to being impressed. Bizet’s music was well-researched and offers a convincingly Spanish experience; it provides layer after layer of psychological character-development, from the teasing seductiveness of Carmen herself through the arrogance of Escamillo, the bullfighter, to the pained passion of Don Jose, who in Shakespearian terms ‘loves not wisely but too well’, via the innocence of Micaela. Two orchestral suites were drawn from the opera immediately after Bizet’s death.

The brief Prélude presents the Fate motif which recurs in the opera at crucial moments, then the Aragonaise, based on a dance from the Aragon region of Spain, paints a picture of the colourful street outside the bullfight. The Intermezzo, one of the orchestral flute’s great moments, appears before the penultimate act to describe what at long last seems to be a stable relationship between Carmen and Don Jose. The Séguedille (Seguedilla) is in the opera sung by Carmen to seduce Don Jose into releasing her from prison at the end of Act l. The Dragoons of Alcala is a mock-military march with bassoons prominent painting the shadowy mugglers’ hideout to which Don Jose has defected at the start of Act 11. Finally The Toréadors portrays the strutting arrogance of Escamillo and the other Toreadors on their way to the bullfight. It is Carmen’s desertion of the sincere but weak Don Jose for the shallow glitter of Escamillo which precipates her murder at the hands of Jose as the bullfight proceeds in the background.

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