We are in 19th century Seville. The city has a barracks and a cigar factory, and the first act of the opera takes place on the square between the two. The overture features toreador music from the final act and the death theme that warns Carmen throughout the opera.
A changing of the guard is in process at the barracks, when a girl arrives from far in the north, looking for her childhood friend José. Lieutenant Moralès tells her José’s shift is next, and Micaëla says she’ll come back later. Once the girl has gone, José enters. Everyone salutes the guard and the scene ends in a bracing male choral scene.
The factory bell rings and the women hurry to the square to be met by their men. Carmen stands out from the crowd and introduces herself by singing Habanera, which swings to the rhythm of Cuban dance. It begins with a fast version of the death theme and reveals Carmen’s morals: she’s a woman who wants to be free and who won’t be tamed by love. Everyone but José watches Carmen dance and sing. To get his attention, Carmen throws José a rose.
Micaëla returns and relays José’s mother’s greetings to him. The scene is sweet and without passion. The mother’s theme echoes in the background as her wish in the letter is read out loud: José should come back to his native Navarra and marry Micaëla. When Micaëla delivers the kiss from the greetings, it remains motherly. Just as José is about to follow his mother’s wish, the ambiance changes. There’s been an upheaval at the cigar factory, where the women have been fighting and Carmen has attacked her colleague with a knife. Lieutenant Zuniga takes on the role of a police officer, and when Carmen mocks him with her song (Tra la la… Coupe-moi, brûle-moi), he orders the girl to be put in a cell.
While José guards Carmen in her cell, she starts her seductive Seguidilla, in which she describes an ardent night together with an anonymous lover. The Seguidilla starts with a quiet flute and picks up speed in a wild crescendo. The name means following in Spanish, referring to an Andalucian dance in triple time. It works – by the final round José is totally enraptured and Carmen ends her aria with the love theme. José releases Carmen, and she promises to wait for her sergeant at Lillas Pastia’s Inn, where she dances at night. José is imprisoned, but Carmen is free.
Two months have passed, and Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès entertain soldiers at Lillas Pastia’s Inn. One of them is Lieutenant Zuniga, who is enamoured with Carmen. Carmen is delighted to hear that José has finally been released from prison. A chorus is heard singing from afar, as people cheer the arrival of toreros in town (Vivat, vivat le Toréro). Toreador Escamillo arrives at the inn and introduces himself by singing a couplet about the minutiae of his demanding profession (Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre). Bizet had no affection for the opera’s most famous aria: ”You asked for tasteless and that’s what you got.”
The innkeeper, Lillas Pastia, shoos the customers away, as the smugglers are about to convene. As the crowd disperses, only a band of five is left: Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès, along with Dancaїre and Remendado, who reveal their plans to the girls. The other girls are willing to take part, but Carmen hesitates, as she is waiting for José. This surprises everyone, as it’s not at all like Carmen to pine for a man.
The smugglers depart and José comes in. Carmen dances for him as she’d promised. The gradually accelerating song, accompanied by castanets, is carefully composed though it seems an improvisation. It’s disrupted by the bugle call inviting the soldiers back into the barracks. José is torn between temptation and duty. When he wants to return to the barracks, Carmen gets angry and mocks her sergeant’s excessive conscientiousness. José tries to appease her by singing the Flower Aria (La fleur que tu m’avais jetée), telling her how the rose she once threw him had given him comfort in prison. A wistful cor anglais from the orchestra accompanies the tenor, playing Carmen’s death theme.
Carmen isn’t impressed by flowers and romantic courting. She wants action rather than arias. If José really loves Carmen, he must join her and the smugglers in the mountains. Nothing else will suffice to prove his love. José refuses, but just as he is about to leave, Lieutenant Zuniga arrives to see Carmen. The men attack each other in jealousy and the smugglers rush to pull them apart. José no longer has a choice – he must escape to the mountains with Carmen.
It’s night in the mountains at the smugglers’ camp. Time has passed and Carmen has grown tired of her steady relationship. She again mocks José and suggests he goes back to his mother. The girls are reading cards to each other, and the happy atmosphere turns morbid when the cards predict Carmen’s death. Carmen sings her only non-dance aria, a solo, and reveals more about herself than before. The flute and the strings play the death theme and the atmosphere becomes even darker. Carmen confesses to believing in the inevitability of fate.
The smugglers need the girls’ help to distract customs officials. José stays behind to guard the camp, alone. Micaëla arrives – she has fearlessly travelled to search out José, as his mother is on her deathbed (Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante). A gunshot is heard and Micaëla hides. Escamillo appears, looking for Carmen. The men meet, Escamillo says he’s in love with Carmen, and a fight is inevitable. Escamillo is on the backfoot, when the smugglers return and save him. As he leaves, Escamillo invites everyone to see his bullfight in Seville.
Micaëla comes out from hiding. When he hears about his mother’s terminal illness, José agrees to go with the girl but promises Carmen he will return. The scene is passionate. The trombones shout death, the mother’s theme echoes in José’s conscience, and the Toreador’s couplet reminds us of Carmen’s true intentions.
Sevillans are getting ready for the great bullfight to the same music we heard at the start of the opera. Zuniga, Frasquita and Mercédès are amongst the chorus, and finally Escamillo arrives with Carmen on his arm. We now hear perhaps the shortest love duet in the history of opera, as the glamorous couple quickly professes their love (Si tu m’aimes, Carmen). Escamillo hurries to the arena, and Frasquita and Mercédès tell Carmen that José is back in town. Carmen is defiant. She’s unafraid, she’s a fatalist after all. She stays behind to wait for José as the crowds enter the arena to watch the bullfight. The orchestra plays Carmen’s death theme.
The desperate José arrives and pleads with Carmen to take him back. (C’est toi! C’est moi!). As José begs Carmen for mercy, we hear the crowd scream with joy and applaud Escamillo in the arena – once again, we have two opposing situations happening at the same time. Three times José asks whether Carmen loves him. The chorus exalts Escamillo and Carmen declares her love for the toreador. This is too much for José. He threatens Carmen with a dagger. Carmen is not scared, she makes no effort to escape. The crowd cheers the unbeatable Escamillo. José plunges the dagger into Carmen’s stomach and shouts: ”You can arrest me! Oh, my Carmen!”
Text: Minna Lindgren / Translation: Anna Kurkijärvi-Willans