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Theatre / Carmen

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The titular femme fatale prepares to give her flower to Don José

♫L'amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser,
Et c'est bien en vain qu'on l'appelle,
S'il lui convient de refuser.♫
click for English translation 

Carmen is Georges Bizet's classic opera in four acts set to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. First performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1875, it shocked and scandalized audiences, and the character of Carmen outraged many critics for being an "amoral seductress" and not a "woman of virtue". It was a huge failure upon release, and it wasn't revived until 1883, when it quickly became popular in France and abroad.

The opera tells the tragic tale of a Spanish corporal, Don José, who abandons the army, his fiancée, and his morals when he falls for Carmen: a mysterious, seductive, and independent gypsy woman.

Modern reception has been much kinder to the opera, with much praise for Bizet's brilliance in melody, harmony, atmosphere, and orchestration. The score was amended significantly after Bizet's death, with a different composer replacing the original spoken dialogue with sung recitatives (both versions are still performed). Since then, it's become a staple in the worldwide operatic repertoire and has seen numerous recordings and productions.

Film adaptations are many, and date back to 1909. Some of the more famous include Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (an all-black cast in the 1950s North Carolina), and 1983 Spanish film Carmen (a dance troupe puts on an adaptation of Carmen while the characters also live out the story in real life, including the Downer Ending).

Carmen contains examples of:

  • Ace Of Spades: The titular character draws spades during a fortune-telling game which she believes foretells her death. Sure enough, her former lover Don Jose kills her in a jealous rage.
  • Adaptational Heroism: In the Chiarot production, Carmen is depicted as a victim of domestic abuse who kills Don Jose in self-defense.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In Cristiano Chiarot's controversial production, Don José is depicted as a bully in the first place, rather than a Nice Guy cum Crazy Jealous Guy, and is given a Bald of Evil.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Zig-Zagged; Carmen gets bored with the increasingly supplicating, but increasingly violent, Don José and takes up with the flashy, but incredibly nice, Escamillo instead.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: A toreador named Escamillo is one of the main characters and the climax of the story takes place outside an arena while a bullfight is in progress.
  • Betty and Veronica:
    • Micaela and Carmen for Don José
    • A subverted male version in Don José and Escamillo for Carmen. Escamillo seems like the Veronica, due to his dangerous and exciting profession, but he's really a laid-back and rather nice guy (as shown in his often-cut duet with Don José), and it turns out Don José is the truly violent one.
  • Because Destiny Says So: The cards say that Carmen and Jose will die, so she feels that she can do nothing to prevent it.
  • Blowing Smoke Rings: The girls from the cigarette factory sing about how they like to watch the soldiers do this.
  • Bootstrapped Theme: The snippet of the "Toreador" song is currently used as the AT&T commercial jingle. Skip to the last 3 seconds of the commercial.
  • Canon Foreigner: Micaela does not exist in Mérimée's novel.
  • Catfight: The reason Carmen gets arrested in the first place is that she got into a catfight with another girl in the factory and cut her with a knife. How much of it the audience gets to see depends on the production.
  • Could Have Been Messy: When Don José fires a warning shot at Escamillo, the latter looks at the sudden hole in his hat and muses, "Quelques lignes plus bas et tout était fini."note 
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Even though he shows some early signs in the second act when Zuniga tries to have his way with Carmen, it’s in the third act that Don José shows that his obsession with Carmen has turned him into one of these, perhaps because he’s given up every principle he has and she’s all that he has now.
  • Dance of Romance: Carmen dances for Don José when they are reunited in act II. She also dances a Seguidilla for him while trying to convince him to release her from custody, in act I.
  • Dark Reprise: Echoes of "The Toreador" are played in a darker tone while Don José kills Carmen.
  • Destructive Romance: The central pairing of Carmen and Don Jose.
  • Downer Ending: At the end of the story Don Jose murders Carmen rather than see her with another man.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Don José abandons every principle he has to be with Carmen, and then turns into a murderous Crazy Jealous Guy when she leaves him. But he still finds time to visit his dying mother one last time.
  • Femme Fatale: Carmen
  • In Carmen's introduction in Habanera, she outright states that anyone she loves should beware. Any man she professes to love ends up having a rough time of it.
  • At the beginning of Act III, Don José laments about his mother. Carmen tells him he should leave and go be with her if that's all he can think of. When he lambasts her for suggesting they part, demanding she never says it again, her retort is biting, or what? Perhaps you'll kill me?
  • Musically, the part at the end of the overture gives a strong sense that it won't end well while you're in for a good time. Whenever that motif pops up again in the score, you know there's unpleasantness ahead (e.g. when Carmen gives Jose the flower; when he comes back and sings to her about how he kept it the whole time he was in prison).
  • Hat Damage: Don José, guarding the gypsy camp, aims his rifle at the approaching Escamillo and fires. The shot apparently passes through Escamillo's hat, which he carries as he enters.
  • Hot Gypsy Woman: Carmen
  • "I Am" Song: Votre toast (Toreador's Song); possibly L'amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera).
  • I Have Boobs, You Must Obey!: The Seguidilla. After being arrested, Carmen convinces José to let her go by singing a song that can be summed up as "I'm available, let's meet at an inn later tonight."
  • If I Can't Have You…: Don José would rather see Carmen dead than with another man.
  • Incoming Ham: Hoo boy. Escamillo's arrival in Act II starts with a chorus singing his praises off-stage, then he comes in to a chorus singing his praise onstage, and then HE starts singing about how awesome he is.
  • Innocent Soprano: The sweet and pure Micaela is a soprano. Notably, she's not the heroine; the independent and volatile protagonist Carmen, who contrasts her, is a mezzo.
  • Large Ham: Par of the course for any opera, but even by those standards Escamillo stands out.
  • Loved I Not Honor More: Don José tries to do this in Act II, resolving to leave the titular gypsy rather than desert the army as she demands. Unfortunately, just as he's about to walk out, his commander Lt. Zuniga walks in to have his own way with Carmen—José attacks him, leaving himself with no choice but to run away with Carmen after all.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Don José starts out committed to his duty, thinking of his mother and professing that he will marry the sweet, dutiful Micaela. Once he falls for Carmen, he starts running off the rails pretty quickly.
  • Love Triangle: Micaela/José/Carmen and José/Carmen/Escamillo
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Carmen is a deconstruction: she's a gypsy woman who seduces and enchants Don José with her free-spirited nature, but quickly tires of him as he becomes a Crazy Jealous Guy. Turns out she's not so much into clingy men, and she leaves him for someone much more exciting. As a result, he kills her out of jealousy at the end of the opera.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Carmen in pretty much every production. Just look at Elina Garanca, Gaelle Arquez, Elena Maximova, Denyce Graves, Grace Bumbry, and Ginger Costa-Jackson's versions.
  • Mood Dissonance: The final scene has Don José threatening to kill Carmen unless she leaves her lover for him while the outcome of the bullfight is greeted with fanfares and cheers.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Subverted. Don José tries to kill Escamillo but doesn't succeed.
  • Not His Sled: In the 2018 Cristiano Chiarot production, Carmen kills Don Jose instead of being killed by him. In this version, he's an out-and-out abusive bully who has it coming.
  • Outlaw Couple: Carmen and Don José eventually became this, but it doesn't last.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: Carmen is one of the most popular and well-known operas.
  • Revised Ending: A very controversial example of this was staged in 2018 in Florence: Christiano Chiarot, believing that the audience was cheering for the murder of Carmen instead of simply applauding the artists, had Carmen shoot Don José in self-defense instead of being stabbed in the back.
  • Scenery Porn: Lots of traditional productions will recreate Seville quite beautifully, regardless of the century the production takes place in.
  • Setting Introduction Song: In Act I, "Sur la place" is the soldiers singing about watching the people of Seville; and in Act III, "Écoute, Écoute, compagnons" is the smugglers singing about the mountains.
  • Smoking Is Glamorous: The song La cloche a sonné. The men and soldiers wait outside the cigarette factory, waiting for the girls to go on break. Subverted in that the sweet words of lovers are compared to the smoke in the air - they don't last.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Don José, by the end.
  • Shout-Out: Escamillo might have been named after a famous female torero Nicolasa Escamilla, nicknamed La Pajuelera (Francisco de Goya has made a famous picture of her).
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Escamillo.
  • Tarot Troubles: Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes read cards in Act III. Frasquita and Mercedes, being secondary characters, get romance and wealth, Carmen gets death.
  • Those Two Girls: Frasquita and Mercedes never appear without each other at any point in the opera.
  • Tenor Boy Though Jose is more for a loud, 'heavy' tenor voice and thus not really boyish.
  • Toros y Flamenco: Complete with a bullfighter.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The original novel by Prosper Mérimée, anyway. The original Carmen may have been a Roma and worked for a while in a cigarella... but she was also an influential campaigner for the rights of working women, and not a known criminal (it was actually her soldier-boyfriend—who may or may not have met her when his detachment were making an attack on a Romany camp—who went to prison, after killing a man in a fight over Carmen). Unfortunately the story of her death (well, her new man was a picador, not a toreador, but apart from that...) was true, and Merimee Flanderized the rest of the couple's life from that.
  • With Catlike Tread: "Écoute, écoute, compagnon" is a very loud song about how sneaky you have to be to smuggle cigarettes.
  • Yandere: Don José
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Carmen's reaction to the cards.


Video Example(s):



Don José would rather kill Carmen than see her with some other man. Recorded at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2010 with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna.

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