The opera about a seductive gypsy who tempts an upright soldier then deserts him for a sexy bullfighter is not exactly family fare. But it is very French.
In the 1870s, upcoming composer Georges Bizet was in his mid-30s, a rising star in Paris with nine operas behind him. Bizet persuaded two literary collaborators, Henri Meihac and Ludovic Halévy, to set a popular novel to music.
“Carmen,” the novel, was written by Prosper Mérimée. Inspired by an ongoing fascination with gypsies, the fictional potboiler came out as a serialized novella in 1845. It captivated French readers, and like Dickens’ serial novels across the pond, Mérimée’s story of passion and betrayal acquired a large following.
The novel employed a standard 19th-century literary storytelling device: a frame within a frame. Set in Spain, a Basque hidalgo named Don José tells a traveler his tale of woe. Of course, he blames his downfall on a woman.
Mérimée’s story is told in first person, but for the opera, Bizet and his librettists shifted the focus to Carmen, a beautiful, free-spirited gypsy desired by every man she encounters and loyal to none. The composer and his librettists maintained the novelist’s time frame, Spain in the 1830s.
Bizet and company made one more important change: they cleaned up Mérimée’s Don José. On the page, Don José was a ruffian and committed murders before he fell under Carmen’s spell. In the opera, Don José is an obedient soldier conflicted by duty and desire. At heart he’s a good son, a wayward boyfriend to his high school sweetheart, and thoroughly flummoxed by the grown-up Carmen.
In short, Bizet’s leading man is a confused innocent engaged to Micaëla, a young village girl conveniently close to Don José’s ailing mother. Micaëla is barely mentioned in the novel, but she’s significantly upgraded in the opera and has one of the most beautiful arias in a work full of memorable arias.
In the summer of 1875, “Carmen” had a controversial world premiere in Paris at the famous Opéra Comique. True to its name, the company specialized in light opera and family shows. “Carmen” was neither.
Later that year, the opera opened in a more appropriate venue in Vienna. Audiences went crazy for the gorgeous music and tragic love story. Unfortunately, Bizet died of a heart attack while still in his 30s and never witnessed the Carmen phenomenon that has swept over the world ever since.
The Metropolitan Opera’s production dates from 2009 when Sir Richard Eyre conceived of a smart, more modern but very Spanish, interpretation. The soldiers stationed in Seville are outfitted in the fascist uniforms of the 1930s. Carmen and the girls of the cigarette factory belong to the same era.
On Saturday, you can watch the newest Carmen, Clémentine Margaine, take a factory break with her co-workers and mesmerize every man in sight, including poor Don José, sung by the inimitable tenor Roberto Alagna.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.