Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: Carmen

Setting: Spain, the kind of Spain that nineteenth-century French composers dreamt of.

Plot in three sentences: Dutiful soldier José falls for wild gypsy cigarette-maker and throws over respectability. They become outlaws and row a lot, until he rushes home to see his dying mother. Meanwhile Carmen takes up with a glamorous bullfighter, so José stabs her.

Reputation: Carmen is now one of the truly popular operas with several numbers which have entered the popular imagination. Oddly, it was Bizet’s native France which proved most resistant to the piece; its intensity – as well as its surprising orchestration and sexy exoticism – put French audiences off. The French obsession with Spain belonged to the next generation of composers, Ravel and Debussy.

Critical reaction: Co-librettist Ludovic Halévy: ‘At the outset we were more astonished than enchanted by [the score]. Such was the evident impression on the audience the first evening. The effect of the performances was uncertain, indecisive. Not bad, but not good either.’ It was a performance in Vienna that lifted it off.

Classical performers: Agnes Baltsa, Marilyn Horne, Leontyne Price; it takes one of those tough, sultry-voiced singers really to get inside Carmen’s gypsy vocal lines.

Highlights: Practically all of it! The Habanera and Seguidilla (Act 1), which have turned up on any TV show/movie/ad which wants to depict Spain; the Toreador Song (another near-cliché from Act 4); the Flower Song.

Death toll: 1. José’s mother. 2. Carmen.

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar: ‘It’s all too easy to forget just how groundbreaking Bizet’s orchestration was for its time.’

What to say quietly in the pub: ‘Phew, what a scorcher!’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995

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