In August 2022, we brought information to you regarding the backstage drama to get “Carmen” onto the stage in front of its first audience. Now, we can take the time to really admire what a work of art the music is for this opera.
The music was incredibly well orchestrated in comparison to other opera or orchestra literature. Georges Bizet made extensive use of the range and sounds of each instrument in the pit. There is a substantial amount of brass work, which is a little out of character for most operas. Punctuated with percussion such as tambourines and castanets that are typically foreign to opera scores and you get a rather exotic approach to the music. Additionally, most operas of that time simply had musicians in the orchestra pit to be background to the vocal talents on stage. This is not the same with “Carmen.” You get percussion and dance rhythms that accompany the character’s vocal lines throughout the score. This was considered progressive for the time, yet helps flesh out Carmen’s earthiness and sultry moves on stage.
Don Jose’s music, on the other hand, is more poignant and pastoral. As the libretto progresses during the opera, his music transitions from all sweetness and lyricism to something a little more jarring and unsettling. Micaëla is fairly constant throughout. Her music matches her character with somewhat dainty and unobtrusive tunes. Escamillo and his famous “Toreador” song carries shameless confidence and showmanship with a little lustiness tossed in for good measure. One point of trivia: When Escamillo and Carmen sing their rather short duet “Si tu m’aimes," it is the only time in the opera they sing in unison. That was Bizet’s method of signaling that Carmen and Escamillo were in alignment with their love for each other.
Alas, Bizet died of a heart attack at the young age of 36 while ill with a fever. “Carmen” had just premiered to the world and had just finished its 33rd performance at Opéra-Comique on June 3, 1875. Bizet died never knowing his opera about a sultry cigarette factory worker would become one of the world’s most beloved and often performed material on the opera stage.