Notes about CARMEN

A very complete and informative site about Bizet and Carmen is the one hosted by Stanford University. Bizet's biography is available on Wikipedia.

CARMEN was first produced by the Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique, Paris, on March 3, 1875. It was not a hit. The initial disapproving critical reaction complaining about the opera's debt to Wagner and its indifference to melody is at critical reception, thanks to the New York City Opera. You can also read the bemused impressions of one of the librettists, Ludovic Halévy.

However, the composers Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Tchaikovsky and Brahms were wildly enthusiastic about it; their comments are recorded in an article by Brahms went to see CARMEN twenty-one (21) times.

I don't think it's going too far to say that Bizet died of broken heart; three months after the première he had three heart attacks and died. There are people who say that there is no connection, and that, as for the failure of his masterpiece, Bizet must have just laughed it off. I doubt that these people have spent a lot of time writing for musical theater.

Initial success of the opera is often credited to the subsequent October production at the Imperial Opera in Vienna. But that company would not tolerate the Opéra-Comique version. In Vienna they added spectacular elements--a parade of toreadors and picadors on horseback--and (what has survived) sung recitatives by Guiraud, which replaced the original spoken ones. This version is still the one usually performed, and it's on almost all the recordings (the Abbado is an exception). Guiraud (and whoever his libretticists were) blurred the sharp edges of the story which Bizet had tried so hard to maintain, but Guiraud probably also contributed to the opera's subsequent triumph.

My experience with real opera people--I was one only for about a month--is that they think that Prosper Merimée's novel Carmen on which the opera is based is a good reference for Gypsy morality and customs--for example, the novel indicates that marriage among the Gypsies was taken lightly. But a study published in 1841, based on interviews with Gypsies, said that the Gypsy bridegroom would sometimes bankrupt himself spending money on his lavish wedding. The page used to be at Globus, but has, alas, been taken down.

For about thirty seconds Opera of the Hamptons considered doing the recitatives in English, and I ran to the library and got the Oeser edition and made a translation. Oeser has (in French and German) the original recitatives which are also available from the Stanford site. A sample of what I did is attached. Anybody who wants to use my whole translation need only ask. Hi, there, Liebchen.