EVERY ONE likes “Carmen.” Its popularity has been ascribed to the fact that “the action explains itself to the eye.” One might also add that the music explains itself to the ear, for the themes are all unfurled and displayed like so many banners. In choosing Mérimée’s novel for a libretto, Bizet recognized the growing demand for dramatic plots with rapid action-a demand which has since evolved such one-hour tragedies as ” Cavalleria Rusticana ” and “I Pagliacci.” Aside from the stirring romance and fascinating music, ” Carmen ” also presents very delightful stage-pictures. The suburbs of Seville form an interesting setting, and the characters all require brilliant costumes. A bullfighter, two smugglers, three gypsies, cigarette girls, and soldiers not a plain individual among them !
Before meeting these unusual personages we are presented with a letter of introduction from Bizet, which, because it is written in musical notation, the orchestra kindly interprets to us. We herein learn that these people take their pleasures, loves, and hates at a breakneck pace. There is a feverish excitement about the whole prelude ; but at the end we hear a tragic minor motif of passion and pain that sends a chill to the heart. It is the Carmen-themeCarmen herself.
A gay plaza in Seville is the first scene of action. At one side is the guard-house, near which are a number of soldiers who mingle and converse with the other strollers and promenaders. A gossiping, good-natured chorus about the square and the people is the opening number. This pleasing melody, in spite of its simplicity, has strange intervals and a restless tempo that are thoroughly Spanish. A young peasant girl soon enters, rather timidly. It is Michaela, the high soprano rôle, which because of its two fine arias is often taken by a great artist, altho the part is a subordinate one. It has frequently been sung by Madame Eames. Michaela inquires for a brigadier called Don José. An officer politely informs her that Don José belongs to the next guard, which will soon arrive. With a musical phrase of dainty and con-descending gallantry he invites her to tarry with them. Michaela declines the invitation, and uses the same musical setting for her own words. With the announcement that she will return after a while she es-capes from their entreaties. The chorus is resumed, and the walking and talking go on as before. Soon the fifes and drums of the relief guard are heard in the distance. The soldiers in front shoulder arms and stand in file as the approaching company appears, followed by a lot of street gamins who keep step and sing to the music. This is so lively and inspiriting that we would march and sing too if we dared. There is a satisfying quantity of this ” ta-to-ta-ra ” music. After marching to the foreground the new guards change place with the old, who are then led away with the same contingent of music and street boys. The soldiers and people at last disperse, leaving Don José and a superior officer, Zuniga, conversing together. The latter points to a large building, which he says is the cigarette factory, where are employed many pretty girls. Don José professes to care little for these, and we soon learn that he loves Michaela.
The factory bell now rings, and a crowd of young men and boys at once fill the square in eager anticipation of seeing the cigar girls. José sits down near the guard-house and busies himself with a little chain he is mending. The tenors sing a short pianissimo chorus about these dark-eyed girls, whom they always court and follow. It closes with a drooping, yearning ritardando that quite prepares us for the next languishing measures. The factory girls enter, with cigarettes in their mouths and a nonchalant manner that is delightful. Between puffs of smoke they sing a slumbrous refrain that suggests the effect of nicotine. The lingering legato melody seems to rise softly and rest in the air until it passes away in tones so faint that Bizet has marked them four times pianissimo.
The young men now accost the girls, and soon inquire for Carmen. ” Where is Car-men? ” That tragic cry which ended the prelude is heard again in the orchestra, but so disguised by rapid tempo as to be scarcely recognizable, and with this theme Carmen rushes upon the scene.
Black-eyed, pearly-teethed Carmen, with cheeks like the red acacia flowers at her throat, and her whole appearance like a splash of sunshine !
The youths clamor about her and inquire collectively when she will love them. Carmen bestows regardlessly some of her dangerous laughing glances, and then sings her great song, the ” Habenera,” so called because of its rhythm, which is like a Spanish dance. But no mazy, undulating dance could be so fascinating as this song about ” Love, the child of Bohemia.” The compass of its ravishing melody is within a single octave. The notes cling lovingly together, for the intervals are mostly half-tones ; and, indeed, as Carmen sings them each one seems like a kiss or a caress. The theme is first given in the minor, and then softly taken up by the chorus in the major an effect as surprising and delightful as a sudden breeze on a sultry night. The accompaniment is like the soft picking of mandolins, and all things combine to represent the warm luxuriance of Spain.
During the song Carmen has perceived Don José, who continues his work and gives her no attention whatever, which is a new experience for this spoiled and petted cigarette girl. She purposely becomes more personal in her song, and ends with the audacious words, ” if you love me not and I love youbeware!” With a sudden dash of impertinent coquetry she flings a flower at Don José, and then rushes off the stage amid peals of laughter from the others, who follow. The young soldier, thus left alone, finds himself troubled with mingled feelings of resentment at the girl’s impudence and admiration for her beauty. He puts the flower in his coat, but at once forgets the whole incident as he sees Michaela, whom he joyously welcomes.
She has come to town for a day, and she brings a letter from his mother, also some money, and still something else, which she hesitates over, but finally delivers as it was given hera kiss from his mother. There is nothing of the coquette about Michaela, and her songs are all straightforward, simple airs that win by their very artlessness. Her message is sung with harp accompaniment, and the harmonies are pure and clear. Then follows a duet about the mother and home in the village, and the tenderness of this music reveals that Don José is a loving and devoted son. When the duet is ended Michaela leaves José to read his letter. Music as peaceful as village church bells comes from the orchestra while the young soldier reads. He touches the letter to his lips and is prepared to obey his mother, especially in the matter of wedding the pretty Michaela.
His thoughts are interrupted by a wild scream from the factory and sounds of disputing voices. A number of girls rush from the building, all talking at once, and they fairly besiege Zuniga with explanations of what has happened. There was a quarrel and Carmen struck another girlsome say she did, and some say she didn’t. Don Jose, in the mean time, has gone into the factory and brings out the struggling Carmen. He tells his superior officer about the affair, which ended in one girl’s being wounded by “this one.” Carmen tosses her head, and when the officer asks what she has to say in defense she looks into his face and sings “la-la-la-la !” Her impertinence would be almost repellent were it not that her voice is “like the wooing wind,” and even her ” la-la-la ” is bewitching. Further questioning only elicits the same response, and the officer angrily declares she may finish her song in prison. He orders Don José to fetter her hands and keep watch while he goes to make out the order of imprisonment. While all are gone a most interesting scene occurs between the prisoner and her keeper. The latter ties her hands, and says he must take her soon to prison, as his superior has ordered. Carmen, in her present attitude of charming helplessness, announces with sweetest tones that Don José will help her, in spite of the orders, because ” I know you love me! ” This is too much. When José recovers from his astonishment at her audacity he commands her to sit still and not speak to him” not another word.” Carmen nods her head in saucy obedience, and talks no more ; she only sings ! Sings of ” an inn near the ramparts of Sevilla ” where she will go to dance the Seguidilla. The song is in the rhythm of that dance, and its sinuous melody is handled by Carmen like a toy. She composes words to suit the occasion : ” My heart is free and willing to love whoever loves me.”
Don José, who has been trying to ignore her, but without success, tells her again to stop. She looks up with a grieved expression and her prettiest smile, and says she is not talking, only singing to herself and thinking; he surely cannot forbid her thinking ! So she goes on thinking aloud about a ” certain officer, who is not captain, nor even lieutenanthe is only a brigadier; but still he is great enough to win the heart of Carmen.” Such words, music, glances, and smiles are more than Don José can resist, and it is not long before he succumbs to her witchery. He unties her hands and asks desperately, ” Carmen, Carmen, do you mean it? ” And for answer she softly sings to him that rapturous song of the Seguidilla.
The orchestra now starts up a lively repetition of the last chattering chorus, and with it the superior officer, Zuniga, reenters. He hands José the order and bids him lead the prisoner to her destination. Carmen holds her hands back, as tho still fettered, and she tells José in an undertone to let her push him as they march off, and during the commotion thus aroused she will escape. Then she turns to Zuniga, and with the greatest effrontery favors him with a fragment of the ” Habenera” song, to which refrain she marches away with apparent docility. The whole group of cigarette girls and young men follow after. Just as they are turning to the bridge, Carmen escapes as she has planned. She throws back the rope from her hands and runs off laughing. It is fun for all but Don José, who for this neglect of duty is himself escorted to prison.
Bizet has preceded every act with an orchestral introduction called the entr’acte, which presents some important theme or portrays the character of the scene. Thus before the curtain rises on the second act we become familiar with a new and happy melody, which we later on recognize and welcome. After the entr’acte the stringed instruments, with a touch of the triangle and tambourine, hold the supremacy as they breathe forth faint, weird harmonies that flit about like moving shadows. The scene presents an interior view of the inn near the ramparts of Sevilla.”
It is evening, and amid the glow of soft lights Carmen and her gypsy friends are entertaining some officers with their dancing. She further enlivens the scene by singing a Bohemian song, whose liquid phrases fall upon the air like the soft splashing of a fountain.
After the song and dance it is time for the inn to close, but at this moment shouts and hurrahs are heard from without. It is a torchlight procession in honor of Escamillo, the bull-fighter, who presently enters amid general acclamations. He wears a gorgeous costume, and sings a rousing song about the exciting life of a toreador. This baritone aria is the most famous of the many popular numbers which comprise this opera. Its strongly accented rhythm and pulsating theme immediately suggest the blaze of lights and blare of trumpets which belong to the arena.
Escamillo soon perceives Carmen, and as quickly falls in love. She dismisses him with a coquettish remark that might mean much or little, and then all depart excepting Carmen and her two gypsy friends, Frasquita and Mercedes. These are soon joined by their comrades, the two smugglers, who softly tell of a new enterprise which will require the “ladies’ assistance.” Frasquita and Mercedes consent to leave at once. Then follows an exquisite quintet, sung with tempo prestissimo and tones pianissimo. Carmen suddenly astounds them with the assertion that she can not go, and gives as her reason that she is awaiting Don José, who today is released after two months’ imprisonment, and further adds that she loves him. They take this at first as a joke; but finding her determined, they suggest that she induce José to join them. She says she will try, and the rest hurry out as they hear the young soldier approaching.
He is singing a gay barrack song, and thus comes to Carmen with his heart in his voice and soul in his eyes. She welcomes him impulsively, and ere long she sings and dances for his amusement. Her song is but an accompaniment to the dancea low, crooning melody without words which resembles the contented purring of a magnificent feline as she glides and sways with a splendid grace around the infatuated José. A bugle-call is heard in the distance, a summons the soldier must obey, and he stops Carmen in the midst of her dance. She thinks he is joking and commences again ; but when she actually realizes that he is going to leave her, that he finds it possible to leave, a perfect whirlwind succeeds the sirocco. She throws him his cap and sword, and bids him go forever if such is his love. Poor Don José remonstrates, but she will not listen until at last he forces her to hear how real and true is his love for her. He draws from his coat the little flower she threw at him two months ago, and he tells how, during all his days in prison, it was his dearest treasure. This music is more like the song of a pilgrim at a sacred shrine than a song of love, it is so simple and sincere. Its tenderness seems to reach even the heart of Carmen, for she now turns and with entreating looks and wooing tones she coaxes him to go with her and lead the free life of a bandit.
The accompaniment is like the distant prancing of wild horses and the melody like the forest wind, low as a whisper, but sweeping before it all the fluttering doubts of a weak conscience. It is desertion, disgrace, dishonor, that Carmen asks of him, and José recoils. He is just on the point of refusing when a knock at the door is heard and Zuniga enters. He is himself in love with Carmen, and has presumed thus to return after the others have gone, in hopes of finding her alone. On discovering the presence of Don José he is angry and orders him away ; but José’s jealousy is also aroused and he firmly refuses to obey. A duel would ensue did not Carmen quickly call her friends. They seize Zuniga, and to avoid being denounced must keep him prisoner until they have made sure their es-cape. Carmen turns to José and asks once more if he will be one of them. As there is now no alternative, he consents, where-upon Carmen with light steps and light heart rushes to his arms like a sunbeam, dispelling for the moment all clouds of memory and doubt. The free, fearless measures of her mountain song are heard again as all sing about the gypsies’ life of liberty. They all go off as the curtain falls.
The next entr’acte is sometimes called the intermezzo, for it divides the operathe comedy from the tragedyand it contains the first premonition of sorrow. As the curtain rises we hear a stealthy, shivering theme that well characterizes the scene before usa wild, picturesque ravine, which is the smugglers’ retreat. Some gypsies are reclining on the rocks ; others soon enter, and sing a quite enticing chorus about the dangers and pleasures of their profession. Two leaders of the band then go off to reconnoiter, while the others rest. Don José is seen standing on one of the rocks, and when Carmen rather moodily inquires his thoughts he tells her of his mother in the village, who still believes him to be an honest man. Carmen coldly ad-vises him to go back to her. Quick as thought-suggestion the orchestra recalls the tragic motif which we had almost forgotten. It causes us to feel with José the sting of Carmen’s words.
Our attention is now directed to Frasquita and Mercedes, who are seated on a bale of goods and trying their fortunes. A light staccato accompaniment sustains their still lighter song. The dainty measures are flung up like bubbles, reflecting the gay colors of the cards, which chance to be all diamonds and hearts. Carmen also tries her luck, but only the dark cards fall to her death, always death ; and to the superstitious gyspy this is like a knell. Again that tragic, mournful theme, like the extended hand of fate, feels its way slowly but surely through the orchestra, and then Carmen sings a meditative, melancholy refrain about the cards whose ” decrees are never false.” The music is in a low key, as tho kept under and depressed by her despair, and it touches our sympathy to see the sunny, frivolous Carmen for once thoughtful.
The two smugglers presently return and report that three coast-guards intercept the way. The girls promise to entertain and divert these while the men make off with the booty. To the strains of a rollicking chorus they all go out, after stationing Don José as watch on one of the highest rocks At this moment Michaela, with a guide, comes timidly forward. She has dared to follow the smugglers to this retreat for the purpose of seeing José and begging him to return. She has tried to be brave, but her heart now trembles, and this fact she confesses in her beautiful and best aria, ” Je dis que rien (” I say that nothing shall terrify me “). As she begs Heaven to strengthen her courage, the soft arpeggios of the instruments seem to rise like incense and carry her sweet prayer with them. She presently perceives José in the distance and tries to attract his attention, but he is watching another intruderon whom he now fires. Michaela hides herself in terror as Escamillo enters and philosophically studies the newly made bullet-hole in his cap. Don José also comes down to interrogate this visitor. The toreador good-naturedly informs him that he has fallen in love with a gypsy girl, Car-men, and comes to find her. He also adds, ” It is known that a young soldier recently deserted his post for her, but she no longer loves him.” Jealousy seems but a feeble word to describe the feelings of Don José on hearing this. He quickly reveals his identity and challenges the toreador. After a short duet, which contains chromatie crescendos of blind fury for the tenor and insolent intervals for the baritone, they fight. Carmen, for the second time, averts a duel by her timely entrance. She calls for help, and the whole troupe of gypsies rush in. They separate the rivals and order them to suspend their quarrel, as all is now arranged for the journey. Before bidding farewell Escamillo invites all to his next bullfight in Seville. “Whoever loves me will come,”this with a tender look to Carmen that maddens José.
Escamillo goes off and the others also start, but they suddenly discover Michaela in her hiding-place and bring her forward. She is frightened and rushes to José for protection, begging him to go home with her. Carmen cruelly seconds this entreaty, and then José turns upon her: ” Take care, Carmen ! ” The words are menacing, but not so the music. José suffers more than he hates, and, instead of the rising tones of anger, the harmonies which struggle upward are continually repulsed as they reach the top, like a wild bird that beats its wings against prison bars. When Michaela finally tells him that his mother is dying, Don José consents to go. He calls out to Carmen, ” We shall meet again! ” She pays little heed to his words, but a glad smile lights her features as she hears in the distance the song of the toreador. And with this melody the act ends.
The final scene represents the gates of the arena where occurs the great bull-fight, and the preceding entr’acte is like the flaming advertisement of a circus, exciting and enthusing from first to last. The opening chorus is sung by venders who throng the square and cry their wares. After this the arena music announces the entrance of the performers. They come in on horseback, and amid enthusiastic greetings from the crowd ride into the arena. Escamillo, the hero of the hour, enters with Carmen at his side. The public cry, ” Vive, Escamilla! ” and burst into a vociferous singing of the ” Toreador Song.” Carmen is radiant as the dawn, and the bullfighter wears colors and spangles that quite eclipse any soldier’s uniform. Before he enters the ring they sing a love-duet that displays more depth of feeling than we should expect from a Zingara.
When the toreador has gone and the arena gates are closed, Mercedes and Frasquita anxiously inform Carmen that Don José has been seen in the crowd, and they urge her to leave ; but she declares she is not afraid of José or any one. They leave her alone, and presently the rejected lover appears before her. But not in anger or to avenge does Don José present himself. He is too utterly dejected and broken-hearted for that. He comes only to entreat and plead for her love. Before he speaks we are warned by the ever-terrible death-theme, which has hung over the whole opera like a suspended sword, that the end is near. But Don José does not know this. Neither does Carmen, else perhaps she would not so ruthlessly spurn him when he begs her to go with him and begin a new life. When he piteously asks if she no longer loves him, her answer is a decisive ” Non ; je ne t’aime plus.” But words have lost their sting for poor José. In a minor melody, that seems to cry out for pity, he says he loves her still. He offers to remain a banditanything, all things ! And then the pathetic minor melody breaks into the major as he desperately adds : ” Only, Carmen, do not leave me! ” At this moment a fanfare and applause are heard in the arena, which cause Carmen’s face to glow with pleasure as she thinks of Escamillo. She tries to rush past Don José into the amphitheater, but he intercepts her and forces her to confess that she loves this man whom they applaud. Once again the gay fanfare is heard, and Carmen tries to pass.
It is now that the tragic motif takes possession of the orchestra and dominates all else. Fearful and appalling sound those five notes which form the theme as they are repeated in various keys. In a frenzy of anguish Don José asks Carmen for the last time to go with him. She refuses, and then, as the toreador’s song of triumph announces his success, José stabs the beautiful gypsy, who falls at his feet like a crushed butterfly. The gates of the arena are thrown open and its glittering pageant comes forth, while José, with insane grief, calls out, ” I have killed herCarmenwhom I adored ! ”
There is no climax more thrilling on the lyric stage than this death of Carmen.