Of all great operas of the 19th and 20th Century, Carmen stands apart as pure genius. Indeed, it has been rated amongst the best performed operas of all time since the 1880’s. Yet this same opera was shredded to failure by critics and given such a negative reception that its composer died of a heart attack soon after the first performance. The false start of the opera is a historic irony of how art is received by critics and the real value as discovered with time.
The Carmen story was first authored by Prosper Merimee in a novella published in 1875. Merimee’s story was partly influenced by another publication by Alexander Pushkin, The Gypsies, published in 1824. The Gypsies was a narrative poem and Merimee had read it in Russian in 1840, before translating it to the French he knew better in 1852. Carmen, the opera, was then composed by Georges Bizet on a libretto by Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac in 1845.
The Carmen story has its setting in Seville, Spain, in about 1830. The eponymous Carmen is a Gypsy woman, loving, beautiful, and with a fiery temper. She loves and finally woos an experienced corporal, Don José, to a dangerous relationship. It is this relationship that makes him reject his former lover. Further, he goes on to mutiny against a superior and then joins a smuggler’s gang. For all this, he is betrayed by Carmen, who turns her love from him and to a bullfighter, Escamillo. The jealousy leads Don Jose to finally murder Carmen.
Carmen had its premiere performance in Paris at the Opéra-Comique in March 1875. The first performance was a huge failure and critics totally denounced it with an overwhelming voice. The opening run had to be performed for a largely absent audience since the critics had said it was worth nobody’s time. By the third day of the run, on March 6, Bizet was a very sad man and worse was to come. The failure of the opera, an opera he had given so much of himself to, sat heavily in his heart. Friends and acquaintances would later attest to how much the poor reception had affected him on those three months after the first run.
The opera was not even getting better after consecutive performances. In fact, critics of the performance urged that it should be withdrawn only after the fourth or fifth performance. Bizet and several supporters strongly advocated for its continued performance though and by the time the first run closed a total of 48 performances had been achieved. By this time, Opéra-Comique was giving away theatre tickets for free, if only to boost attendance to the opera. Due to the widespread negative critic people did not even want to see the opera for free.
Bizet could not take any more of it and although there might have been other causes, the failure of Carmen is felt to have been the greatest trigger of his heart attack on 3rd June 1875. He was only 37 years of age by that time and his genius had been rejected. During the American production in 1896, he was honored with a standing ovation, for a genius opera, by thousands of adoring fans during one of the highest priced performances of the time. Georges Bizet died before he knew just how popular his creation would become eventually after the critics shut up and the world beheld the art in Carmen.
Three months after his death, Carmen was produced in Vienna. There, the first signs of appreciation were planted, nurtured and subsequently bloomed with a critical and audience acclaim. It was the first performance to be lauded a success in the performance history of a truly great opera. That was the first positive step that led to Carmen growing into worldwide popularity, a popularity that never waned again. Had Georges Bizet risen from the grave that October, he would have been shocked by the reception. Experts say that the Vienna production was indeed the premiere of the opera and not the one at Opéra-Comique. The irony of irony is that when the same opera was repeated at Opéra-Comique in 1883, eight years after the first run, the reception was simply fantastic.
Onwards, the opera rose to be the most performed opera of all time, as a standard operatic repertoire. Today, Carmen is ranked the forth most performed opera in America and in many parts of the world it is the best. This last opera of Bizet completely transformed the static Opéra-Comique genre of opera. It actually killed that static tradition that had been dormant for almost a century. Traditionally, operas were regarded as serious, declamatory and heroic while Opéra-Comique as light-hearted, conversational and bourgeois. But Carmen pioneered the transformation of that traditional distinction in Italy and later on in the world. This new movement became popular as a celebrity cult of realism today referred to as the verismo.
Despite such a major contribution, Bizet died early in his life. To compound the loss, his heirs and the publisher were very negligent of Carmen just as with most of his operas. This eventually led to textual problems and it’s only recently, from 1960 onwards, that scholars and performers have reverted fully to the original texts of Bizet. Such was the start of a truly great opera, starting falsely and yet persevering until it rose to the very top, when the genius in it was let free on the hearts of men and women beyond the critics.