When Carmen was revealed to the Paris Opéra-Comique public on 3 March 1875, the heroine's overt sexuality, the depiction of the female chorus smoking and fighting, and Carmen's violent death on stage, provoked a furore. It took a couple of years – and a ‘grand opera’ version with recitatives replacing the traditional opera-comique dialogue – for Carmen to establish itself as one of the greatest of all operas. Its success is based on a compelling story (after Mérimée's novel) of the ensnarement of a young soldier by a free-spirited gypsy girl, set to music of beguiling lyricism, rhythmic vigour and orchestral colour.
The fastidious German composer Richard Strauss regarded the orchestration of Carmen as perfection itself; once audiences had opened their ears to Carmen and her tragic fate at the hands of a rejected lover, the opera never looked back. Don José is the simple soldier who falls for Carmen and springs her from prison where she languishes on an assault charge; now an outlaw, he is forced to join Carmen’s band of smugglers, in spite of pleas from his intended bride, Micaëla, to return home and care for his dying mother.
Don José loses Carmen to the charismatic toreador, Escamillo, but Carmen already knows – the cards have told her – that she will die at the hands of the jealous, tormented Don José. Fate’s decree is fulfilled when he seeks her out amid the glamour of bullfight day; as the crowd cheers Escamillo’s latest success in the bullring, Carmen rejects Don José one final time; he stabs her and she dies in his arms.
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