Bizet and Carmen
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was born in Paris. He showed signs of remarkable talent from an early age and was exceptionally gifted at the piano. Admitted to the Paris Conservatory at the age of 10, he won numerous prizes and, at the age of 19, took the Prix de Rome with the highest honours.
From 1860 to 70, Bizet had to earn his living by doing an enormous amount of hackwork. Despite difficult circumstances, Bizet had his fair share of opportunities, both in the concert hall and the opera house. He was 28 when his first important opera The Pearl Fishers was produced at the Theatre Lyrique. The Fair Maid of Perth followed at the same theatre four years later. The Opéra-Comique opened its doors to him in 1872 with a production of his one-act Djamileh.
For the next Opéra-Comique project, Bizet decided on the subject himself: Prosper Mérimée’s novel Carmen (written in 1845). Once he started work on it, the story and its central characters took complete possession of his imagination. With great skill the two librettists compressed the events of the novel, extended the range of characters, enriched the plot with action, heightened the conflict between the principal protagonists and provided a clear narrative flow. Bizet himself contributed in no small measure to the dramatic adaptation. As a result, Carmen emerges as one of the most fascinating characters in the entire operatic literature. José’s moral disintegration is most movingly portrayed.
The opera was completed in the summer of 1874. Its 1,200 pages of full score had been orchestrated within two months. Bizet was pleased with the result. Rehearsals began in the autumn and immediately met with difficulties. The subject and its treatment were considered too offensive and shocking for decent family spectators of high society. The music was thought to be too unconventional and too difficult for the audience. In short, the composer and authors were far too advance for their time.
After considerable argument, persuasion and compromise, the first performance took place on 3 March 1875. With a few lukewarm exceptions, the newspaper critics attacked Bizet for being dull, obscure, uninventive and lacking in inspiration and sincerity. Bizet was deeply depressed. He had been ill for some time due to exhaustion in preparing the production. The deterioration of his health and spirit led to a final acute angina attack. He died on 3 June 1875, three months after the first performance of his masterpiece. He was not yet 37 years old.
Carmen ran for 45 performances at the Opéra-Comique. The day before the composer died, he signed an agreement with the Vienna Opera for a production there which opened on 23 October 1875. It was this production that paved the way for Carmen’s world-wide success. Vienna was followed by Brussels, London, New York, St. Peterburg, Marseilles, Lyon, Barcelona and many other cities. By 1878, Carmen had swept the entire western world and has since remained one of the half-dozen most popular operas ever written.