It was on this day in 1875 that Georges Bizet’s magnum opus, the opera Carmen, debuted at Paris’ famous Opéra-Comique. The libtretto for Carmen, with its ultimately tragic tale of a classic lovers’ triangle, was freely derived from Prosper Merimée’s scandalous 1845 novella of the same title. Carmen is among the most popular operas in the world. Airs from Carmen are among the most widely known pieces in all of opera. The fiery and passionate Habanera from Act I is instantly recognizable. The Toreador’s song has taken on a life of its own in uses as diverse as advertising and comic parody. Carmen grew steadily in propularity from its first revival in 1883, and seems to have grown ever more popular since; it was among the top fifteen most performed operas of the 20th Century, and in these early years of the 21st Century, it has moved to a number three position. Carmen certainly secured for Bizet a place among the world’s most renowned and best love composers. Indeed, on the very day of the premiere, Bizet learned that he had been named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, which relfected a growing appreciation of Bizet’s works, at least among the cultural élite. The great Russian composer Tchaikovsky attended one of the early performances and observed that “Carmen is a masterpiece.”
It may seem that Carmen has always been a well loved success. However, it was not always so. After the premiere on 3 March 1875, the Opéra-Comique gave only 35 more performances, many of which were to a half-filled house despite the distribution of free tickets. So Carmen was set aside for the next eight seasons.
Reviewers took exception to almost every aspect of the opera, from its distressingly unconventional heroine to its unusual and distinctive music. Bizet had attempted to capture the feel of authentic peasant music to tell the story of people of the lower classes; Paris’ musical élite found this hard to comprehend. Carmen broke with many accepted conventions of the Opéra-Comique: it told a tale of the working class and peasantry. Its heroes were not heroic at all. Carmen herself was a wanton temptress who delighted in the hold her charms had upon men. She was – Good Heavens! – “sexy!” And she was a strong willed woman who persued what she wanted. Such a character is not uncommon in today’s literature and drama, but it was quite revolutionary in Paris of 1875. Too, the story is a tragedy that has no uplifting moral; no redeeming virtues are revealed at the last. In this, the opera presages the realism that came to characterize late 19th Century theater. (It should perhaps be mentioned that the fact that Carmen is a tragedy does not clash with the repetoire of the Opéra-Comique, however. Despite the obvious translation of that name into English, the Opéra-Comique had long presented a wide range of themes, from lightly comic to serious and tragic.)
It was not until the 1883 revival that Carmen began to be widely accepted. As mentioned above, its popularity increased steadily thereafter. Though the first run comprised only 36 performances, after the 1883 revival, Carmen became a mainstay of the Opéra-Comique. As of its most recent revival in 2011, the Opéra-Comique had performed Carmen over 3,300 times. It has been estimated that Carmen has been performed essentially continuously at one location or another around the globe for the past seventy-five years.
Sadly, Georges Bizet never knew of the success that Carmen was to become. He died quite suddenly the night of the 33rd performance. Bizet was just 36 years old. Legend has it that the poor reception of his masterwork hastened his demise. I have always found it terribly sad that Bizet never knew how beloved Carmen would become. Carmen was the very first opera I listened to from start to finish when I was young, thanks to a radio broadcast from New York’s Metropolitan Opera which was in those days sponsored by Texaco. Though I was already unavoidably familiar with its most famous melodies, I was perhaps most intrigued by many of the lesser known pieces, including some of the purely instrumental bridges. It still seems to me one of the most consistently captivating of all operatic scores.