Carmen, Opera by G. Bizet
Georges Bizet’s Carmen was as radical a departure from the established traditions of opera as any single work in the history of the genre. The moment Bizet’s heroine sings the first few notes of the Habanera, the aria with which she announces her arrival on the scene, one knows immediately that we are in a world light years away from the comedies, historical melodramas and affairs of the bourgeoisie that had been the mainstay of nineteenth-century musical theatre.
For French audiences of the time, Carmen, full of lowlifes and smugglers, would have been as distant to them as the mythological epics created by Bellini, Berlioz and Wagner. The first few outings for Carmen, which premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875, were not exactly what one would call a success. Audiences were scandalized by the way in which Carmen toys with the men around her as Don José, an army corporal, and Escamillo, a toreador, literally come to blows as they fight for her affections. It was not what polite society was used to seeing at the opera.
Today we view Carmen very differently. Startlingly modern in its depiction of a woman in control of events, that is until its violent and abrupt conclusion, Carmen is quite simply electric. The story fizzes with passion and its music is charged with an energy that still leaves us catching our breaths once the performance is over. Yet the biggest shock of all is the knowledge that Bizet’s genius was able to craft Carmen’s wonderful and completely authentic Hispanic melodies without ever visiting the country it is set in.
Now Carmen returns to the Vienna State Opera, a stage she has graced many times before, to champion women and turn men’s lives upside down once again.