(Image from Music at Ease)
Ah Carmen, you are the most popular (certainly most performed) French opera on the planet. Your livret could be a tragedy by Racine and your score is full of tunes known the world over. And yet you failed, rather horrifically actually, on your opening night. That is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, La Traviata and Madama Butterfly both died only to be resurrected and reborn to immortality, and yet there is something about you Carmen that makes your failure at the Opera Comique on the 3rd of March 1875 not really all that much of a surprise.
According to Ludovic Halevy, co-librettist and cousin of Bizet’s wife Geneviève, daughter of the composer Fromental Halevy, the first act was well received with much applause and numerous curtain calls. The beginning of the second act was also well received, but for some reason just after Escamillo’s entrance aria, the audience became cold. In act 3, only Micaela’s aria (today generally seen as the weakest and most formless in the act) was applauded (although Gounod apparently shouted that Bizet had stolen the melody from him, and it is so pallid that this might actually be true). The final act was meet with a “glacial” reception, something which today simply seems bizarre unless the audience had become so convinced that they were witnessing a flop.
Now it is true that the third act of Carmen is certainly the weakest (although this is comparing three magnificent and almost unequaled in all music acts to one that is perfectly fine, just not to the same level as the others), and yes Micaela is the most mind-numbingly thankless soprano role in the standard repertoire, but the only thing I can think of that changes in Carmen following Escamillo’s aria is the introduction of the bandits and the smuggling element into the plot, providing the opera with a grittiness that probably just didn’t jell with the family audiences at the Comique?
Up to this point the score consists of rather well done faux-Spanish music, a chilling death theme, a series of amusing choruses (including one for children), an attempted assault, three of the greatest pseudo-Spanish arias of all time, a good duet for soprano and tenor which plot wise goes no where because of a successful assault in a cigarette factory, an escape, a Romany dance, and a Toreador song. All rather standard stuff for an opera comique (or for any 19th century opera). But then we suddenly get smugglers (really tuneful smugglers mind you) followed by a magnificent love duet and tenor romance which apparently Parisians didn’t like (because they were deaf?). And to cap it all off a nomadic aria and closing chorus, but we also get the beginnings of the real downward spiral in Don Jose’s character, from which we never recover. I’m not saying this bit of psychological theatre is bad (far from it), but apparently it wasn’t want Paris wanted in 1875.
Act three opens with a beautiful entr’acte, a chorus of smugglers (yeah more of them, I know, we are surrounded by them now) and the Card Trio. Then comes one of my favourites and then Micaela returns with her Gounod-esque death wish aria. The last act is just lovely, the Spanish prelude, the Bullfight Parade, the final duet Carmen-Don Jose. Yeah the in-between stuff can be a little ridiculous (such as when Fraquita and Mercedes warn Carmen about Don Jose’s presence to the most sunny of tunes), and yeah the final murder is barbaric, but this is opera and by those standards, Carmen sort of had it coming to her. Not so much its initial reception.
Perhaps you were too ahead of your time. Maybe that is why today we all love you so much!
“Carmen”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Last modified 1 October 2018. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen#Premiere_and_initial_run
“The Music of Carmen“. Music with Ease.com. www.musicwithease.com/bizet-carmen-music.html