Carmen: The first Verismo opera

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Houston Grand Opera Carmen 2013-2014 Season April 25, 27m, 30, May 02, 04m, 08, 10 Patrick Summers (conductor) Ana Maria Martinez (Carmen) Uliana Alexyuk (Frasquita) Carolyn Sproule (Mercedes) Dancers Photo by Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera’s staging of Carmen (Photo by Lynn Lane)


“Carmen” has been in the very first circle of popular operas for over a century. Anyone with any level of interest in the Grand Art should develop some kind of familiarity with it. As it is with all other very beloved operas, first and foremost “Carmen” is loaded from beginning to end with beautiful and memorable music — solo arias, ensembles, choruses — and even a number of purely instrumental passages that are unforgettable. The music is the creation of composer Georges Bizet, who unfortunately died young (at 36), and before he knew what a triumph “Carmen” had become. But the words and story that inspired Bizet, not only helped him produce a great opera, but truly one of the most significant dramatic works of art of all time.

Let’s say — in the here and now — that we want to dramatize a story with a young woman as our main character. She is sexy — very desirable to men — and she is not really interested in marriage and children. Although she tends to be a one-man woman, she likes to pick and choose who her lovers will be. If she’s in a relationship that gets old, and she meets someone that excites her more than her current boyfriend, she has no compunction whatsoever about calling it quits with one lover and falling into the arms of another. Now, we have been talking fiction, but we might even know someone like this. We wouldn’t necessarily call her a “bad girl,” would we? In any case we know of lots of novels and movies about women like this — no big deal, today.

But in the 1870s or earlier for an opera? Forget about it! When the Florentines produced the first opera in 1597, they were consciously trying to resurrect Greek Tragedy. The Renaissance Italians did have strong theater and music traditions, but for this new thing they called “opera in musica” they relied on Aristotle’s “Poetics” to guide them in creating its elements. For serious or tragic operas, the main characters would be aristocrats — and those who were of noble spirit, even the villains, such as Macbeth. Poets and librettists used this formula of designating their tragic heroes and heroines. Before “Carmen” in 1875, virtually all tragic operas that are still performed were such.

The libretto of “Carmen,” by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, departs radically from this formula. First, all the characters are common folks, not aristocrats — gypsies, factory laborers, smugglers, soldiers, bullfighters, innkeepers and what have you. Secondly, Carmen may not be a truly evil woman, but back in the 1870s (and earlier) she would definitely be thought of as a “bad girl,” nor would many characterize her spirit as “noble.” Thus the tragic heroine of this opera flies against the tradition of centuries. And yet this opera established a new set of character formulas that would lead directly to Verismo opera, and beyond the opera stage to the conceptualization of virtually every 20th- and 21st-century film of note.

It’s easy to show the connection between “Carmen” and Verismo. What have you got in your typical Verismo opera? A simple plot (some kind of love triangle), all common people for characters, some kind of superstitious overtones, emotional music, sexual jealousy, and ultimately a killing (by stabbing). Isn’t that what you have in “Carmen” (except the Bizet opera is full-length and Verismo operas are one-acts)? It should also be fairly clear that modern filmmaking characterization is similar to that of “Carmen,” as opposed to every serious music drama that preceded it.

More difficult to explore is the question of whether “Carmen” demonstrates the superiority of French opera over Italian opera in the late 19th century, or if the piece is a brilliant French approach to styling an Italian art form. There’s no question that French opera has the longest and richest tradition next to Italian opera. While the greatest number of operas in the standard repertoire are Italian, the greatest number of composers that have a niche in this repertoire are French. But there’s still a story to be told about of how French opera came to be, and of how Georges Bizet (and, of course, “Carmen”) was affected by this.

French opera began in the reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” But we should keep a couple of things in mind. When Louis XIII died in 1643, the future Sun King was only five years old, and was not deemed ready to handle affairs of state. This task went to the Chief Minister, Cardinal Mazarin, successor to Cardinal Richelieu. Mazarin’s real name was Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino — so the foremost domestic and foreign policy maker of France was an Italian who was born near Naples. Not only did he have a lifelong connection to Italy by blood, but he was a representative of the Pope in Rome. Then there was a young man, originally named Giovanni Battista Lulli, a very talented musician and dancer who had been brought to France from Florence at the age of 15 in 1647 to be a kind of cultural tutor for an aristocratic couple.

Louis XIV had an artistic bent himself — he especially loved to dance. One time when he performed in some ballet he met Lulli, who was also dancing, and the two hit it off so well that the King gave him a place in his court. Soon Jean-Baptiste Lully (like Mazarin, he Frenchified his name) was appointed the director and chief composer of the “Académie Royale de Musique,” which in time became the Paris Opéra. So a Florentine, with a Neapolitan watching over his shoulder, created French opera.

All arts were very important to Louis XIV. And when it came to sculpture and painting, he was not the least chauvinistic. He knew well where the greatest sculpture and painting came from. So in 1666 he established the “Prix de Rome” — a scholarship/grant enabling the most talented sculptors and painters to study for three years in the cradle of Renaissance artistry. In 1720 the prize was expanded to architecture, and in 1803 to music. Most of the French composers who created standard-repertoire operas won this prize — most notably, Charles Gounod, who is said to have had a tremendous influence on Bizet.

So how does the “Prix de Rome,” if at all, figure in Bizet’s ability to create the masterpiece of opera that is “Carmen?” Like Gonoud before him, Bizet sought and won the coveted prize when he was 20 years old. He knew he was a musical genius and he knew that producing music dramas offered him the greatest chance of success as a composer. Bizet also knew that he could learn more about composing opera in Italy than anywhere else. It simply wasn’t enough to be able to create beautiful melodies. He had to learn about structuring arias — how to choose and resolve cadences, how to finish off phrases, etc. And in the three impressionable years he spent in Italy he soaked up over two centuries of the approach to these techniques of the Italian masters.

Regarding “Carmen,” let’s just say that it’s an Itaian opera composed by a Frenchman.

Interestingly, like a number of other very popular operas, “Carmen” got off to a very rocky start. Its original form resembled that of a “singspiel” — musical passages alternating with spoken dialog. This was standard for the Opéra-Comique, the theater where “Carmen” opened on March 3, 1875. But the work’s revolutionary characterization, which we have discussed above, offended many attendees and kept many others away. After 33 performances to typically half-empty houses, Bizet died suddenly on June 3rd, thinking that a work that he believed he had done well with, was a failure with the public.

In October of that same year, however, “Carmen” was revived for performance in Vienna. For this production spoken dialog was eliminated and music was composed for recitatives throughout — more in the traditional Italian style. All of a sudden it was a great success, and it began to be played all over the world. Although it is not uncommon to hear a fully “through-composed” version of “Carmen” live or in recording, most of the time productions will alternate music and dialog, but probably with more music than in the opera’s original run.

We in the Chicago area have the wonderful opportunity to see a production of “Carmen” staged by one of the world’s top opera companies. Lyric Opera has produced this opera before and will certainly do so again. But, as Carmen pondered, who knows what the future holds? See it now! You’ll be very glad you did!

February 11, 15, 19, 22, 28
March: 3, 6, 16, 19, 22, 25

Carmen — Ekaterina Gubanova (Feb. 11 to Mar. 6)
Carmen — Anita Rachvelishvili (Mar. 16 to 25)
Don José — Joseph Calleja (Feb. 11 to Mar. 6)
Don José — Brandon Jovanovich (Mar. 16 to 25)
Micaëla — Eleonora Buratto
Escamillo — Christian van Horn
Conductor — Harry Bicket (Feb. 11 to Mar. 6)
Conductor — Ainars Rubikis (Mar. 16 to 25)
Director & Choreographer — Rob Ashford
Set Designer — David Rockwell

For tickets or more info visit or call 312-827-5600

About John Rizzo

John H. Rizzo has lectured and written extensively on opera and Italian culture. Many of his essays can be read on, the official Internet organ of the Italian Opera Company of Chicago. Retired now from teaching at Oakton College, Rizzo has published five novels, with a sixth due out in September. He is a committee member and judge of the LiPuma-Raimondi Vocal Contest, hosted annually by the Italian Cultural Center at the Casa Italia in Stone Park.

Check Also

My first English teacher

My aunt Margaret had blue eyes, a blue dress and a pair of hairbrushes backed …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Want More?

Subscribe to our print magazine
or give it as a gift.

Click here for details