Georges Bizet's masterpiece, with a charming Spanish atmosphereOn March 3rd 1875, Carmen was staged at the Opéra-Comique in Paris: an opera which broke the tradition of this genre of opera and which had to be presented to an audience which was very much unprepared. It brought a subject to the stage which was declared to be immoral, and its music to the same extent went against the mainstream. The cold reaction of the spectators was a great disappointment for the composer, Georges Bizet, who in the past had been appreciated and praised by the most illustrious French musicians. The failure of this opera was fatal for him, in the way that it contributed to his death, which took place 3 months after the première of Carmen.
The subject was taken from a short story by Prosper Mérimée and adapted for the stage by the librettists Halévy and Meilhac. It was an opera classified in the comique genre, which means that spoken and music recitatives are alternated through the opera.
Bizet worked hard and enthusiastically on this composition from 1872, despite the fact that his operas entitled L'Arlésienne and Djamileh, were both disappointing failures. He wrote the music for the first act between that year and the summer of the following year.
Already in that period the lack of comprehension that Bizet was going to encounter with the Opéra-Comique as a result of Carmen, began to be apparent. He therefore decided to accept the proposal to write the music for Don Rodrigue, to be staged in the same theatre. Unfortunately on October 28th, 1873 a fire destroyed the building and the opera wasn't able to be staged. After all this effort which received no appreciation, the composer wrote a concert overture, Patrie, which was successful.
Naturally, this series of events delayed the composing of Carmen which still remained incomplete. The rehearsals had already been organized, but had to be postponed from December 1873 to August 1874, with the première scheduled for October. In the meantime, the musician suffered an angina attack which convinced him to retreat to his country home in Bougival on the Seine. There, in the summer of 1874, he completed the draft of his most famous opera and took another two months to orchestrate it. Consequently, the first performance was delayed once again.
One of the factors which contributed to the delay was the difficulty to find a singer who was willing to wear the clothes of the sensual Carmen. Finally, in December 1874, Célestine Galli Marié accepted the role. A further obstacle was the hostility of De Leuven, co-director of the Opéra who worked with Du Locle. While the latter was connected to Bizet, even in terms of friendship, and tried to favour his work, his colleague found the choice of the subject to be appalling and absolutely didn't approve of staging it at the Opéra-Comique, which was noted for its Bourgeois respectability.
The rehearsals lasted nearly 5 months. These months proved to be extremely demanding as a result of a series of obstacles which Bizet experienced and had to confront. The chorus complained about the vocal and stage difficulties caused by Bizet himself; Du Locle and the librettists attempted to convince the author to modify some of the scenes or to completely cut out certain parts. They also tried to limit the realism in the performance of the singers, as they were afraid that the public would have been shocked. Bizet wasn't influenced by the pressure put on him to censor his work and only carried out modifications to Carmen according to his own judgement.
The day of the première arrived and destiny prevailed that Bizet be called Knight of the Legion of Honour. That evening Carmen was staged with a disastrous outcome. Even though he slowly accumulated a higher number of spectators in the repeat performances, the opera didn't obtain the recognition which the author expected. He could never have imagined that the opera, in the Autumn of 1875 in Vienna, would have become a world-wide success. For this edition Ernest Giraud, who had always been a friend of Bizet's, composed the music for the recitatives which had been spoken in the original version: Carmen became a grand-opéra and one which is much applauded today.
As a result of the growth in enthusiasm for an opera which only a few years previous had been ignored because of its immoral restraint, in 1883 Bizet's masterpiece came back to the theatre where it had premièred. At that stage the path had already been smoothened for its re-evaluation. Carmen had conquered the success that Bizet had been denied, and today it is applauded in the major theatres all over the world.