PDF Classroom guide for Carmen
PDF Playbill for Carmen
Carmen opens with a boisterous orchestral fanfare. The listener is taken on a thematic tour of the opera, in which three of the most famous and recognizable motives in the operatic repertoire are presented. Of particular interest is the structural regularity with which the first two musical phrases – the bullfight theme and Toréador theme – are juxtaposed with the irregularity and exoticism of the fate motive. These three motives reappear throughout the drama and by virtue of the prelude’s unresolved conclusion, subtly foreshadow the musical and dramatic conflicts to follow.
The scene opens on a hot and lazy morning in Séville. A chorus of disinterested soldiers, led by their commanding officer Morales, lament their mundane surroundings as the stand watch over a tobacco factory. In the midst of this chorus, Micaëla enters in search of her beau, the corporal Don José. Her inquires are met with flirtatious jests from Morales and the soldiers, but she manages to learn that José will arrive with the changing of the guard. She escapes their advances and promises to return when the guard is changed.
The trumpet is sounded and the fresh soldiers enter, followed by a sea of street boys, who childishly mock and imitate the guards. Don José is among them, with Lieutenant Zunigà. The noon bell rings and the cigarette girls, weary and sweated through, exit the factory and join the soldiers. The men express dismay that of all the unchaste women before them, the capricious “Carmencita” is not to be seen. No sooner has this hungry audience begged for their absent diva, than Carmen enters, singing her well-known “Habañera.” The “Habañera,” whether a genuine expression of Carmen’s attitude toward love or simply a Cabaret song, compares love to a rebellious bird and a gypsy child: it is evasive and powerful.
Micaela returns, interrupting the distracted José as he contemplates the flower he has just received from the bewitching Carmen. Along with a letter and some money, Micaëla gives José a kiss from his mother.
The momentary stillness is suddenly interrupted as screams from the cigarette girls fill the square. A fight has irrupted in the factory, and Don José is sent in to stop it. He returns with Carmen who is subsequently arrested.
It is important at this point to keep in mind Prosper Mérimée, whose short story was the basis for Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto. He states, “To the people of [Carmen’s] race, freedom is everything; they would set fire to a city to spare themselves a day in prison.” To this end, Carmen sings the sultry Seguidilla with the intention of convincing José to let her go. Though at first resistant, José – overpowered by Carmen’s persistence – succumbs to the possibility of symbiotic love with Carmen, and she is allowed to escape. For this insubordination, José is imprisoned.
ACT II: Two months later.
Lillias Pastia’s Tavern. In this place where all are equal and lawful mingles with lawless, Carmen, with Fraschita, and Mercedes sing a song of their people. Their subsequent wild dancing is interrupted by the crowds heralding Escamillo, famed toréo of Granada. His entrance is grand, ostentatious, and he thanks the crowd for their toasts in his name. What follows is a bold retelling of the pleasures of his profession. The crowds dissemble, following Escamillo. As the tavern empties, the gypsies are left to discuss their illicit business, singing a rhythmic and light-hearted quintet.
José is heard from off stage, approaching the tavern. He finds Carmen alone, and explains he has just been released from prison. He admits to still loving her, and, out of either gratitude, retribution, or genuine love, she fulfills her promise to dance with him at Lillias Pastia’s. But when the bugle calls, José tells her he must return to the barracks. Shocked that he would leave her to return to his duties, she accuses José of not truly loving her. José violently demands she understand the sacrifices he made in the name of love: the “Flower Song.” “No, you do not love me,” she replies, “If you did, you follow me to the mountains, and never have to depend on anyone else.” Liberty, and one’s own free will, is all important! José is unable to abandon his honor, and after unsuccessfully pleading with Carmen to stop her talk of desertion, he bids her farewell… forever! Yet before he can leave, Zuniga, who has returned to pursue his own lust for the unattainable Carmen, interrupts them. Thrown into a jealous rage, José disobeys Zuniga’s orders to return to camp, and they begin to fight. At Carmen’s command, the gypsies appear from all over and the fight is ended. Now, however, being guilty of his second grievous insurrection, José has no choice but to desert the military and join the band of gypsy smugglers as one of their compatriots.
ACT III: Six months later.
During the entr’acte, the smugglers enter carefully with their riches, José among them. Having set up camp, Frasquita, Mercedes, and Carmen settle in to read their fortunes in the cards. The fortunes reveal limitless riches and erotic love for the two woman, but imminent death for Carmen.
Meanwhile, Micaëla has climbed the mountain to the gypsy hideout in pursuit of José. She sings her honest and courageous aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” (“I say that nothing frightens me”) as she approaches the smuggler’s lair. Spotting José in the distance, she hides as he raises his gun and fires. His target is none other than the ever-confident Escamillo, who is nonplussed at having developed a fresh hole in his hat. When challenged as to his business there, Escamillo explains he has come for Carmen, and the encounter deteriorates into yet another fight.
Carmen and the other gypsies enter just in time to save Escamillo from José’s knife. Escamillo is convinced to leave, but not before inviting the smuggler’s, Carmen in particular, to see him fight in Seville. The angered José warns Carmen not to try his love and patience anymore. Before she can respond, Micaëla enters and begs José to return with her. At first he refuses, but she informs him of his mother’s immanent death, and he is forced to reluctantly agree. His departure, however, is not without one final warning to Carmen: they will meet again.
ACT IV: Several weeks later.
It is the day of the fight in Seville, and the crowd excitedly anticipates Escamillo’s arrival. At long last he appears, with the stunning Carmen by his side. They profess their love for one another, but all is not well, for Mercedes and Frasquita warn Carmen that José is in the crowd. Fully aware of the fate revealed to her by the taro cards, she nevertheless remains behind and encounters José. He makes a final and desperate attempt to convince her that their love is all that can save them both. Carmen is unmoved, and tempting her fate, responds that she cannot and will not love him any longer. Broken in spirit and seized by rage, José ends Carmen’s life. And with her death, the formal and musical conflicts left open at the end of the prelude come, finally, to a close.
By Joseph Michael Brent and Christopher Voss