“Spuntato ecco il di”
The Chorus with VanNessa Hulme
“Dio, che nell’alma infondere”
John Atkins and Roberto Perlas Gómez
“Maledizione, maledizione!…La Vergine degli Angeli”
Susana Díaz with Mauricio A. Palma II and the Men’s Chorus
“La vita è inferno all’infelice…O tu che in seno agli angeli”
“Urna fatale del mio destino”
“Lorchè pifferi” and “Venite all’indovina”
Peabody Southwell and the Chorus
“A buon mercato chi vuol comprare?”
Robert Norman and the Chorus
“Pane, pan” and “Nella guerra”
Ms. Southwell and the Chorus
Finale, Act III
Ms. Díaz, Ms. Southwell, Mr. Atkins, Mr. Gómez, DeReau K. Farrar and the Chorus
Ms. Southwell, Mr. Gómez and the Chorus
La maja y el ruiseñor
Mazurca de las sombrillas
Mr. Atkins and the Chorus
“De España vengo”
“Amor, vida de me vida”
“No puede ser”
“La cloche a sonné” and “Dans l’air nous suivons des yeux”
The Men’s Chorus and the Women’s Chorus
Ms. Southwell and the Chorus
“Écoute, écoute, compagnons”
Ms. Southwell, Mr. Atkins, Jennifer Miller, Judy Tran Gallego, Joseph Michels,
Stephen Anastasia and the Chorus
Mr. Gómez, Ms. Southwell, Ms. Díaz, Mr. Atkins, Judy Tran Gallego
and the Chorus
Spain seemed to hold a special fascination for Giuseppe Verdi, as well as for many French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was apparently the only country he visited solely as a tourist, on an exhaustive (and exhausting) trip in 1863. It is not difficult to see in the operas that he set in Spain some of its appeal to him for its history, literature and vibrant culture, long familiar to Verdi. Spain had ruled much of Italy for large chunks of Italy’s history, and also had a long and contentious relationship with Austria (for much of Verdi’s life, the occupying force in his province of Lombardy) in their struggle for control of the Holy Roman Empire. Spain was also notorious for its particularly vicious brand of the Inquisition, still a potent symbol of suppression of independent thought. Thus Spain provided Verdi with settings in which he could express his own longing for freedom and autonomy, revealed so profoundly in his signature chorus, Va, pensiero. In La forza del destino, the Italian soldiers are encouraged to defeat the occupying Spanish. In addition, Verdi drew on Spanish gypsy culture for characters such as Azucena in Il trovatore, and he was able to humanize their desire for liberty and independence without resorting to the usual gypsy clichés of rattling castanets and flashing teeth.
Based on Schiller’s 1787 play Don Carlos, the opera was originally set by Verdi on a French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry for its premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1867. The drama is set in Madrid during a truce between Spain and France in 1558. The title character is the son and presumed heir of Phillip II, King of Spain, who had annulled his son’s betrothal to the French princess Elizabeth and married the much younger Elizabeth himself. The familial conflicts take place amidst the sweep of a revolt against Spanish occupation in Flanders (the Netherlands) at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.
In Act II Scene 2, a huge crowd has gathered to witness an auto-de-fé – a ritual burning at the stake of heretics condemned by the Inquisition (a scene not in Schiller’s original play). The crowd exults that the day of rejoicing has dawned (“Spuntato ecco il di”) and praises the honor of Phillip, the greatest of all kings. Their love will follow him everywhere and never diminish, for his name is the pride of Spain and must live forever. Monks lead the condemned across the square, saying their fatal day, the day of terror, has arrived and they must die. But on the day of judgment, the voice of heaven will forgive their sins if they repent at this final hour. As the excited mob again praises the glory of the king, a celestial voice is heard telling the condemned to let their souls fly to heaven to find peace in God.
In Act I, Scene 1, Don Carlo greets his long-time friend Rodrigo, the Marquis di Posa, and admits to di Posa that he and his stepmother Elizabeth are secretly in love. Di Posa tells the prince that he should relinquish his hopeless love and help the oppressed people of Flanders, whom di Posa supports. Knowing that his boyhood friend supports a peaceful solution to Spain’s war on the Flemish rebels fighting for independence, Di Posa urges Carlo to ask heaven for strength. Together they ask God, who instilled love and hope in their souls (“Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor”) to kindle a desire for liberty in their souls. They swear that they will live and die together, on earth and in heaven.
Verdi employed Francesco Maria Piave as librettist (the last of their eleven collaborations) to adapt the Spanish play Don Alvaro by Angel de Saavedra, which had been a great success in Spain in 1835 and launched the romantic movement in Spanish theater. Commissioned by the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg for an astronomical fee, the premiere of La forza del destino in 1862 was received unenthusiastically (due in large part to the nationalistic fervor among Russian composers and the public) but went on to greater success in Italy and the rest of Europe. The opera ranges across Spain and Italy in the mid-18th century against the backdrop of Italy’s drawn out battle for independence from Spanish rule (a topic dear to Verdi’s heart). It follows the failed elopement of Leonora and Don Alvaro, the accidental killing by Don Alvaro of Leonora’s father when he tries to stop their elopement because Don Alvaro is half Inca, and the relentless pursuit of the lovers by Leonora’s vengeful brother Carlo as the three protagonists are separated, then tragically reunited as war rages around them.
Leonora and Don Alvaro manage to escape together after Don Alvaro’s accidental killing of her father. However, in the chaos of the war-torn country, they were separated. They search for one another (unsuccessfully) and Leonora encounters her brother Carlo, who has vowed to kill both of them to avenge his family’s honor. Carlo doesn’t recognize Leonora in her disguise as a man, but she overhears him telling others at an inn the story of why he is searching for her. Carlo believes that Don Alvaro has returned to his native country in South America and Leonora is stunned by her lover’s abandonment of her. She seeks refuge in a mountain monastery, where she tells her story to the abbot and begs for sanctuary. He attempts to persuade her to enter a convent, but she insists she wants to live alone in a nearby cave and give herself to God. The abbot agrees to keep her identity secret and informs his monks that a penitent has come among them, and tells them they must protect the holy grotto from all interlopers. If any of them fails, he will be cursed. The monks agree that a curse shall fall (“Maledizione, maledizione!”) on anyone impious enough to venture there. Heaven will send lighting to incinerate them, and their ashes will be scattered on the winds. The abbot blesses Leonora as he sends her to her lonely retreat, and tells her to ring the bell in the cave if anything threatens her. The monks call on the Virgin of the angels (“La Vergine degli Angeli”) to enfold the penitent in her mantle and ask the angel of the lord to protect her, as Leonora joins in their prayer.
Believing that Leonora is dead, Don Alvaro has joined the Spanish army under an assumed name and become an officer. In the deep of night in a forest where the army is encamped, Don Alvaro has withdrawn from his men and ponders his lost love. Life is hell to the unhappy man (“La vita è inferno all’infelice”). He longs for death, but in vain, as he remembers Seville and his Leonora. His sorrow is eternal. He recalls his parents, who tried to secure freedom from their foreign masters and regain their Inca kingdom, only to die by the ax. He prays that Leonora, who now lives among the angels (“O tu che in seno agli angeli”), forever pure, beautiful and untouched by human misfortune, will look down at his wretched longing for death in battle. He begs that Leonora will take pity on his suffering.
Don Alvaro (under his assumed name) has rescued Carlo from assassins. They have sworn allegiance to one another, and when Don Alvaro is badly wounded, he makes Carlo promise to burn the papers Alvaro has with him if he should die. Alvaro loses consciousness and Carlo begins to suspect his true identity. As he struggles with his oath to burn the papers unseen, he is torn by the desire to confirm his suspicions. He throws down the sealed package as he struggles with his destiny (“Urna fatale del mio destino”). He will not be tempted by the desire to open it. He came to the war to redeem his shame, and it would be insane to sully his honor by breaking a sacred oath. He resolves to leave the papers sealed, but can’t resist the temptation to look for other proof, and discovers a portrait of Leonora in Alvaro’s bag. When the surgeon appears to announce that Alvaro will survive, Carlo is overjoyed. Now he will be able to carry out his vengeance for Alvaro’s villainy. He wonders where Leonora is and whether she has followed the man who reddened her face with the blood of her father. How happy he would be if he could only dispatch both of them to hell with one blow of his sword.
Against the backdrop of a drawn out war, the military encampment scene in Act III is drawn largely from Schiller’s play Wallenstein’s Lager rather than Saavedra’s play Don Alvaro, as the rest of the opera is. Carlo has waited for Alvaro to recover sufficiently to reveal his identity and challenge him to a duel, which is broken up by an army patrol. As the two antagonists are dragged away and the sun rises, the army camp slowly comes to life. While the soldiers come out from their tents, vivandieres (women who follow the army selling wine and food) begin to ply their wares, and the young gypsy Preziosilla tells the soldiers’ fortunes. The crowd celebrates the sound of the fife and drum (“Lorchè pifferi e tamburi”) which deafen the earth. They are happy, because war is life and joy to the soldier. With their gay, adventurous life, neither tomorrow nor yesterday count for anything, for all their thoughts are centered on today. Preziosilla encourages the crowd to come to the fortune teller (“Venite, all’indovina”) who has come from far away to decipher their mysterious futures. The crowd gathers around her, as the soldiers ask if their sweethearts have been faithful. As the soldiers drink, the peddler Trabuco appears, with a variety of cheap trinkets. He calls out to them, asking who wants to buy or sell (“A buon mercato chi vuol comprare”). The soldiers all want to sell things to him, but Trabuco drives a hard bargain. When the soldiers threaten him, he concedes that he can offer them a little more, and they all readily sell their goods.
Meanwhile, a group of peasants enters, begging for food for charity’s sake (“Pane, pan per caritá”), saying the war has destroyed their homes and fields. They are echoed by young recruits weeping for their mothers and wishing only to return home. The lively vivandieres tell them to forget their mothers and girlfriends, for it’s useless to think about the past. Preziosilla chides the soldiers for crying like babies and says they’ll only be laughed at by their comrades. Telling them to look around at the pretty faces eager to console them, she tells them to have a little common sense and take courage. Preziosilla, the soldiers and the vivandières rouse themselves with a lively tarantella (“Nella guerra”), because in war only folly and madness can cheer them.
Following the successes of three of his first four operas for La Scala, Verdi hoped to reach a wider audience and accepted a commission from Teatro La Fenice in Venice for the 1844 season. He selected as his vehicle the French play Ernani by Victor Hugo (which became a major stalwart of Sarah Bernhardt’s repertoire). Hugo based much of his hit play on the true story of a Robin Hood-type figure in Spain in 1519, during the reign of Don Carlos I (later crowned Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and the grandfather of the title character in Verdi’s later opera Don Carlo). Verdi chose for his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who, for the next two decades, was to become one of his most frequent collaborators. Ernani scored a great success in Venice at its premiere, as well as establishing Verdi’s career outside of Italy. The composer suffered his usual travails with finding the right singers as well as difficulties with the police and the Austrian censors over Ernani’s scenes of conspiracy against a ruler. Verdi craftily gave in on a few minor details while retaining the overall incendiary feel of Hugo’s play, which the authorities were apparently too obtuse to notice. Although none of Verdi’s early operas was “contemporary” nor overtly connected with the politics of the day, they all featured themes of liberty and patriotism as well as opposition to tyranny. Given Italy’s roiling politics during the Risorgimento of the 1820’s through the 1870’s, it is easy to see how Verdi became such a potent figure on the larger Italian stage outside of the opera house. Indeed, his very name became a rallying cry with a double meaning – “Viva Verdi!” – as the letters of his last name also stood for “Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia” (Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy, who in 1861 was to become the first king of the united Italy). With Ernani, Verdi moved toward a drama of individuals, with the chorus acting more as support than as a central character, as it had in Nabucco and I Lombardi.
Ernani is the alias of a Spanish nobleman, Juan de Aragón, whose family has been banished. Ernani has joined a band of rebels and outlaws fighting against Don Carlos (Don Carlo), King of Castile. Ernani is in love with Elvira, a young noblewoman whom he hopes to free from her elderly uncle, Silva, who intends to marry Elvira against her wishes. Unbeknownst to any of them, Don Carlo is also enamored of Elvira and takes her hostage. Ernani and Silva join forces to rescue Elvira and murder Don Carlo.
At the beginning of Act I, in a rebel camp in the mountains near Silva’s castle, the outlaws whom Ernani has joined are found eating and drinking. In “Eviva! Beviam!”, they describe their pleasure in wine and gambling, for gold is vain treasure and their only friends are their muskets and daggers. They wonder why Ernani is so pensive and pale. Saying that they share a common fortune, they tell him to cheer up and at least find some pleasure in wine.
The conspirators are gathered in the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle, near the tomb of Charlemagne. Having been informed of the plot against him, Don Carlo has hidden in the tomb to spy on his enemies. Booming cannons announce the choice of Don Carlo as Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. As Ernani and his cohort ask what the noise can be (“Qual rumore! Che sarà?”), they are thunderstruck to see Carlo come out of the tomb, believing him to be the ghost of Charlemagne. Carlo quickly sets them right as the Electors, Elvira, and Spanish and German nobles enter to proclaim him Emperor. Carlo denounces the conspirators as traitors, sentencing the commoners to prison and the nobles to death. Ernani insists on death as he reveals his true identity, and Elvira begs Carlo to honor the greatness of his throne with forgiveness. Her plea for pity moves Carlo as he glances at the tomb of his sublime predecessor Charlemagne (“O sommo Carlo”) and he not only pardons the conspirators, but grants Ernani and Elvira the right to wed. Carlo praises Charlemagne, while Elvira, Ernani and the court praise Carlo’s glory and honor, telling him he resembles God in his forgiveness. Meanwhile Silva bemoans his offended honor, and vows revenge on Carlo, Ernani and Elvira, as Carlo vows to emulate Charlemagne’s greatness.
Enrique Granados’ Goyescas was the first Spanish opera ever to be presented at the Metropolitan Opera. Granados studied both in Barcelona and Paris and achieved his first major success in 1898 in Madrid with the opera María del Carmen. His suite for piano, Goyescas, was premiered in 1911 and is today his most famous work. The six pieces of the piano suite were inspired by six paintings by Francisco de Goya, whose work not only fascinated Granados, but led him to become a painter as well. The great success of the piano suite led to Granados’ expansion of it into an opera, to a libretto by Fernando Periquet. Completed in 1915, the European premiere of Goyescas was canceled due to the outbreak of World War I. It did premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1916, and that performance was so well received by both the critics and the public that it led to Granados being invited to perform a piano recital for President Woodrow Wilson. Ironically, this success may be considered a factor in Granados’ tragic early death. Having postponed his return to Spain in order to perform at the White House, his delayed journey ended on the steamer Sussex, when it was sunk by a German torpedo and both Granados and his wife drowned.
Of Goya, Granados wrote that he was enthralled by the painter’s life, his works, and his relationships with his models and the Spanish court (particularly his muse, the Duchess of Alba, immortalized by Goya in several paintings, including The Naked Maja.) Set in one act of three tableaux, Goyescas evokes the world of Goya’s beloved majas and majos, women and men from the working classes of Spanish cities (particularly Madrid), who were distinguished by their extravagant style of dress and behavior, as well as their impudent manners. The majos and majas prided themselves on their exaggerated Spanish dress and were often at loggerheads with the Spanish upper classes, whom they considered Frenchified.
The story recounts the conflict between the majo couple Paquiro and Pepa and the aristocratic Rosario and her lover Fernando, a captain in the Royal Spanish Guards. Paquiro and Rosario once had a brief romantic encounter at a candlelit ball, and he challenges her to attend one again. The enraged Pepa vows vengeance upon her rival, and the jealous Fernando responds that he will bring Rosario to the ball. Once arrived, Fernando’s imperious behavior infuriates the majos, especially Fernando. Fueled by Pepa’s stinging taunts, Fernando and Paquiro’s clash culminates in a challenge to a duel. Rosario and Fernando share a romantic visit in her garden before the appointed hour for the duel, in which Fernando is mortally wounded by Paquiro and dies in Rosario’s arms.
The first tableau is based on Goya’s 1791 painting El Pelele, which he painted for Charles IV of Spain. The majas and majos are found outside the Church of San Antonio, playing a traditional game in which they toss a straw man (the pelele) in a blanket. (The pelele is frequently meant to represent an unwanted lover.) In the second scene (La calesa), the toreador Paquiro is devoting his attentions to the young women, who gladly accept them, although they tell him that they know he is only flattering them and not to be believed. Paquiro’s sweetheart Pepa, a very popular manola (another term for maja) arrives on the scene in her calesa (a small, horse-drawn cart) to great acclaim from the crowd. The men admire her flashing eyes and salty wit, and the women agree that her charm can’t be denied. The men salute their manolas (and their mothers, because they aren’t there to bother anyone with their prying eyes). Pepa exclaims that no queen could have a more exciting greeting from her friends, and the men respond that there isn’t a neighborhood in Madrid that can resist her. Paquiro is not enthusiastic about the attentions paid to his Pepa, but she vows that her love belongs to him alone, as their friends comment on their fierce love. When the men return to their rhapsodies about Pepa, the women remark that Paquiro isn’t so bad himself!
In the third and last tableau, following the ball, Rosario mournfully sits alone on a stone bench in her garden. As she listens to the nightingale’s song, she joins in with a passionate love song of her own (La maja y el ruiseñor). She wonders why the nightingale sings so harmoniously in the evening shadows. Does the bird feel rancor against the sovereignty of the day? Or does she conceal sorrow in her breast and hope to find relief in the shadows as she sadly sings her song of love? Perhaps somewhere there is a flower, trembling with chaste love, who is the lovesick slave of the nightingale’s song. Love is like a flower at the mercy of the sea, but without song, there is no love.
The second tableau opens on the majas and majos dancing at the lantern-lit ball. Fernando arrives with his lady Rosario, and soon his disdain and Pepa’s taunts arouse the gathering to a fever pitch. As the women try to drag Paquiro and the other men away from attacking Fernando, Rosario faints. In the melee, Fernando and Paquiro make their arrangements to settle their conflict in a duel. Fernando leads Rosario away from the ball, and Fernando and Pepa call on their friends to resume dancing. In El fandango, they celebrate the style and brilliance of Madrid. The men pity those who’ve never known the joy of dancing, and proclaim that they could die happy as they watch the women’s beautiful feet. The women join in their celebration of the lively charm of the dance as one of them declares the three things a maja (if she’s what she ought to be) must know: how to pull out a rival’s hair, how to love, and how to forget any man who forgets her!
The zarzuela is an enduring form of musical theater which continued in Spain (and later in Latin America) for over 300 years. Named for La Zarzuela, the royal hunting lodge of King Philip IV, the genre continued in a variety of forms until the Spanish Civil War of 1936, when it gradually fell out of favor. Zarzuelas were largely eclipsed by the dominance of Italian opera by the end of the 18th century, but they achieved a rebirth during the second half of the 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th, zarzuela’s golden age. Mixing arias and choruses, along with verse and prose, popular song and broad comedy, zarzuela generally assumed two basic forms: the género grande, with well-developed and complex plots, and the género chico, one-act farces, usually much more rambunctious, and generally set in less respectable neighborhoods in Madrid. Zarzuela differed notably from operetta (aside from the latter’s devotion to the waltz) in its reliance on dance, particularly specific styles of Spanish dance such as the habanera, the seguidilla, the jota, etc. At the height of the craze for Viennese operetta and American musical revues in the early 20th Century, which was furthered in Spain by composers such as Luna, other Spanish composers such as Torroba retaliated by looking back to what they considered the more romantic time of Madrid in the 19th Century. It is worth noting that, contrary to American musical theater styles, the zarzuela, like the operetta, requires genuine operatic voices for the appropriate performance of its vocal demands.
Federico Moreno Torroba had a lengthy career composing, conducting and producing. Besides writing many symphonic and instrumental pieces, he composed for opera and ballet before his success at zarzuelas, of which he wrote over 80. The most famous of them all, the zarzuela grande Luisa Fernanda has a libretto (by the prominent Spanish librettists Romero and Shaw,) set in the 1868 Republican revolution. Against this dramatic backdrop of war and class struggle is set a romantic triangle. However, the Mazurca de las sombrillas (Parasol Mazurka) steps away from the melancholy drama for a moment and shows us the young ladies of the town on their way to church to ask St. Anthony (the patron of achieving a good marriage) to send them sincere love. The young men romance them by praising the señoritas’ beauty and assert that they are Spanish gentlemen. They ask the women to open their parasols so the sun doesn’t die of jealousy of their beauty, and all declare that under the shade of a parasol, love sings softly. However, the men are disappointed when the ladies close their parasols just when the best is coming. The ladies cannily reply that good things must end if they are dangerous, and happiness does not arrive suddenly.
The Spanish composer Pablo Luna is best known for his many zarzuelas, but he was also a prominent conductor in the world of Spanish musical theater. Beginning with his first major success in Madrid in 1908, Luna’s work began to reflect the growing popularity in Spain of Viennese operetta as exemplified by Lehar, of which Luna’s zarzuelas became the most successful.This style was reflected in a propensity for exotic locales and highly romantic plots, as opposed to the more realistic and satirical presentations which had hitherto characterized zarzuela. El Niño Judío (The Jewish Boy) was one of Luna’s most successful works upon its premiere in 1918, and it was typical of the new style, with its Byzantine plot and wide-ranging settings (beginning in Madrid in 1900, then proceeding to Syria and India, before returning happily to Madrid where its long-suffering lovers Samuel and Concha are finally allowed to unite.)
In Act II, having already traveled from Madrid to Syria in search of the title character’s long-lost father, Samuel and his beloved, Concha, have arrived at the palace of an Indian potentate (whom they mistakenly believe to be Samuel’s father). Responding to the Rajah’s interest in their homeland, Concha replies that she embodies the essence of Spain. She comes from Spain, and her eyes reflect Spain’s bright sky and her body the grace of the people (“De España vengo”). Anything from Madrid drives her wild, and when she sings in the gypsy style, her song makes the flowers on her shawl bloom. Her face clearly shows that she is Spanish, and she is dying for love of the dark eyes of her own beloved boy.
Torroba premiered his zarzuela Maravilla, with a libretto by Luís Fernández Ardavín, in Madrid in 1941. It is a romantic tale of life in the world of opera, centering on the diva Maravilla, whose daughter Elvira is in love with her mother’s producer, Faustino. Elvira is loved in turn by Rafael, who is to play opposite Maravilla in her next performance. Rafael pours out his heartache that Elvira has rejected him and mocked his passion for her. He bids farewell to his love, the life of his life (“Amor, vida de me vida”). How sad it is to say goodbye to their youthful love, which she will never be able to recover. She lied to him a thousand times about her love, and now he can only say goodbye to love.
Pablo Sorozábal was born in the Basque countryside in 1897, and from his childhood as a musical prodigy, he had a long musical career until his death in 1988. After studies in Madrid, Leipzig and Berlin, he made his debut as a conductor in Germany, and conducting remained the center of his musical career. He was a prolific and varied composer of works ranging from the concert hall to the ballet to the stage. Of his stage works (more than twenty), La taberna del puerto was one of the most famous. Using a libretto by Romero and Shaw, this nautical romance is set in Basque country in a fishing port. The young sailor Leandro has fallen in love with the mysterious taberna (tavern keeper) Marola, who appears to be the paramour of Juan, a much older pirate who has set her up in the tavern. In reality, Juan is Marola’s father, and is trying to force her to involve Leandro in a scheme to smuggle cocaine. When Leandro is informed of the plot, he is downcast that his love would do this to him. He wonders if it can really be true (“No puede ser”). He is sure she can’t be a wicked woman – she is just unhappy. She can’t be a cheap siren trying to poison his life – he has seen her pray, and love, and cry. Those eyes that cry can’t be lying. He saw two tears trembling in her eyes, and he hopes they tremble for him. He prays she’ll take pity on his love, because he can’t pretend, he can’t be silent, he can’t live without her.
Carmen was based on a short novel by Prosper Mérimée with a libretto by the French librettists and playwrights Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Bizet had begun composing instrumental works before devoting his career to stage works. He had had six operas produced by the time of Carmen, which became not only his most famous work, but one of the most enduring (and presented) of all operas. He died tragically young (at 36) on the night of the 33rd performance of Carmen, just as it was poised to bring him worldwide fame, eclipsing the disappointing critical response it received at its premiere.
Carmen is set in Seville around 1820. The Spanish gypsy Carmen lives only for sensuality. Attracted by the young military officer Don José, she beguiles him into helping her escape arrest after she is embroiled in a brawl with some of her fellow workers at a cigarette factory. Don José is then sentenced to jail himself for his dereliction. Searching Carmen out after his release, Don José finds his passion is in conflict with Carmen’s fierce independence. Jealously fighting with one of her suitors, his own lieutenant Zúñiga, he is forced to flee to the mountains with Carmen and her smuggler cohort. Ultimately rejected by Carmen, who has left him for the famous toreador Escamillo, Don José stabs her.
In the first act, a group of men wait outside a tobacco factory. Singing that the bell has rung (“La cloche a sonné”), they wait for the women to return to the factory so they may follow the dark cigarette girls, murmuring words of love to them. The factory women appear, all smoking and following the smoke through the air with their eyes. As the smoke rises to the heavens (“Dans l’air nous suivons des yeux”), it goes to their heads and lifts their spirits. While the women compare the dissipating smoke to the raptures and vows of lovers, the men look for Carmen. As she enters, they crowd around her and ask when she will love them. In the Habanera, Carmen replies that she doesn’t know – perhaps never, perhaps tomorrow – but certainly not today. Love is like a rebellious bird that no one can tame, and it’s a waste of time to try; love is a Bohemian child and has never known any law. If they don’t love her, perhaps she’ll love them. And if she loves them, then they should watch out for themselves!
Don José has drawn his sword on his commanding officer Zúñiga in a quarrel over Carmen, whose smuggling cohorts side with Don José and drive off Zúñiga. Forced to flee the army, Don José joins Carmen and the other smugglers to sneak in English contraband. At their hideout near a mountain pass, the smugglers are joined by Don José, Carmen, her gypsy friends Mercedes and Frasquita, and the smuggler kingpins Dancairo and Remendado. The comrades exhort each other to proceed carefully, as fortune lies ahead if they make no mistakes (“Écoute, écoute, compagnons”). The ringleaders celebrate the life they lead (“Notre métier est bon”) as long as they have a strong spirit, for peril is ahead of them and behind them. They will proceed without care for the storm that engulfs them or the soldiers patrolling below.
At a tavern on the outskirts of Seville where Carmen is relaxing among her gypsy friends and soldiers from the town (while Don José languishes in jail), a crowd is heard cheering the toreador Escamillo for another triumph in the ring. Escamillo returns their toast (“Votre toast”) and says soldiers and bullfighters can understand each other – their pleasure is in combat. Recalling the arena full of fans cheering his courage, he says that while fighting he dreams of the dark eyes watching, and the love that is waiting. Re-enacting the fight, he evokes the moment of silence when the furious bull leaps and struggles, before the fight is won. Carmen’s friends Mercedes and Frasquita woo Escamillo, but his attention is won by Carmen.