• Carmen: Musical Structure

    Carmen is a "numbers opera" with no written-through music but rather a collection of arias, duets, ensembles, and scenes structured in the work's original form as an opéra-comique, the French term for operas with spoken dialogue that are not necessarily comedic. In other versions like we've extensively discussed elsewhere in this set of articles, it contains recitatives - not composed by Bizet himself - linking the numbers.

    Running time approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes.


    The opera opens with a very enticing prelude that became a major staple of Western classical music with its thrilling initial vivid melody that is immediately associated with the fierce title character. These opening notes return only once in the opera, in the chorus that greets the bullfighting processional in Act IV. The uplifting music is heard again in the prelude after it wanders over quotes of the Toreador Song of Act II. Then it suddenly pauses, and with no warning, shifts to an ominous descending figure played against a shuddering background - the Death motif. It gains in intensity and builds up the tension, when again, surprisingly, it suddenly stops (to great effect!), and the first scene rolls on.

    Act I

    A lazy opening chorus describing the mid-day scene comes up - "Sur la place chacun passe." Once it is over on the phrase "Drôles de gens!" Micaëla's piece rolls on with a scene that begins and ends with the same music, a picturesque chorus. "Il y sera" is a tune Micaëla shares with the soldiers. Moralès sings a pantomime which is very rarely given (since Bizet himself cut it) and produces some comic relief moments in couplets: "Attention! Chut! Attention! Taisez nous!"

    The scene moves on to the change of guard, with a band of street urchins singing a charming military march with bugles and fifes (these, rendered by the woodwind), "Avec la garde montante" - another opportunity for some local color and comic relief. Then, Don José hears from Moralès about Micaëla's visit over a solo violin and solo cello in canon providing background, before a longing, lazy melody brings back some romantic disposition: "La cloche a sonné" - the factory bell rings and is time for the cigarette makers to come out.

    Carmen makes her entrance and engages in the famous Habanera "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" - with a gently rocking Hispanic-American dance rhythm supposedly originated in Cuba, but actually in this specific case derived from a Spanish song popular in France at the time, as we've extensively described in other articles of this series. The chorus adds a lot to the impact of this aria.

    Following the Habanera we have a sustained note in the violas building up tension while Carmen tries to seduce Don José, follow by a dissonant slap of a chord when she tosses the flower at the corporal. We hear the Death motif again.

    The raw Mediterranean-style sexual tension then gets a break when the naive country girl Micaëla introduces sweet and bucolic music and engages in a duet with José that is very much in the fluently melodic tenderness of the then current French style of operatic music - "Parlez-moi de ma mère."

    The idyllic moment is very effectively broken, in musical terms, by a chorus that introduces a fight between Carmen and another cigarette factory worker - "Au secours! Au secours!" which is as gritty and bloody as the best Verismo moments that were to come, a couple of decades later.

    Carmen soon teases Zuniga with her "Tra la las" followed by some melodrama with Don José which is often cut from productions, and then rushes into a seductive seguidilla (a type of traditional Spanish dance with jerky rythms, swoops, and lingerings in the middle of phrases), "Près des remparts de Séville." The aria flows into a duet with the corporal, but then is restarted in louder manic intensity when the soldier agrees with releasing her, finishing on a shout of joy. The act ends with echoes of the Habanera, of which four lines are sung at the fall of the curtain.

    Act II

    The second act opens musically with a hypnotic swirl followed by a brief orchestral entr'acte, and that swirl repeats when the curtain rises, becoming a frantic dancing tune that grows faster and faster in mesmerizing effect: the Gipsy Song (Chanson Bohèmien) "Les tringles des sistres tintaient" to tambourine accompaniment.

    After some extended dialogue, the chorus greets the approaching bullfighter with the toasting words "Vivat! vivat le toréro!" to the sounds of triumphant C major fanfares, followed by one of the most famous arias in all of opera, the Toreador's Song couplets "Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre." It's swagging and arresting verses are in a minor key, however the refrain "Toréador, en garde..." switches back to a major key producing a proud and striding effect.

    All this erotic and macho heat then cools off again - a recurring characteristic of this opera with its hot and cold moments in rapid alternation - with the quintet "Nous avons en tête une affaire" which again brings back some comic relief and lightness with lots of musical energy. It's got a catchy tune with fast staccato, with breathtaking pace.

    In the same vein and after some dialogue in which Don José comes in singing the melody of the Entr'acte, the next number is again seductive and sexy, when Carmen unleashes her female powers on mesmerized Don José with her very Spanish-sounding dancing number punctuated by castanets "Je vais dancer en votre honneur" - entirely diatonic, but soon enough she explodes in rage once the bugle call threatens to take her prospective lover away from her - "Au quartier! Pour l'appel!"

    Keeping up with the alternation of sweet lyrical moments with those of raw passion and sexuality - with another intrusion of the Death motif - Bizet greets us with the very melodious and tender tenor aria "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" which ends with a passionate declaration of love that rises to an eerily soft high B-flat.

    Undeterred by all this tenderness, and unlike convention that would call for a duet of shared passion, Carmen plows right on with another display of assertive sensuality in "Non, tu ne m'aimes pas!" which contains the rhythmically seductive phrases that start with the words "là-bas, là-bas" - repeated several times throughout her number, to great effect. Once their scene is over, the "là-bas" refrain spills over the next number - act II finale's - and keeps repeating, making of Carmen's siren song something more like a hymn to the rogue's life, ending with a statement on how freedom is intoxicating: "et surtout la chose enivrante: la liberté, la liberté" that brings down the curtain.

    Act III

    The entr'acte is one of Bizet's most beautiful melodies, with a soaring flute solo heard over arpeggios in the harp, continued by the woodwind and other strings. Its bucolic nature suggesting a pastoral introduces the fact that we are now away from the city, in the mountains surrounding Séville. A quintet in celebration of the smuggler's good life ensues, "Notre métier est bon" - and is done in comic-opera style, almost entirely homophonic, ending in a breathtaking series of descending chromatic chords on "Prends garde de faire un faux pas."

    Again, keeping up with the structure of his "hot and cold" alternation, Bizet next introduces some upsetting dialogue between the soldier and the gipsy, which culminates in the Card Trio with its fatalistic tones - "A la bonne heure..." then "Mêlons! Coupons!" in the middle of which Carmen suddenly shifts to a low and ominous voice, starting with the line "En vain pour éviter les réponses amères" when it downs on her that her fate is sealed, and is a path to an untimely death. The girls try their best to lighten the moods by resuming their lighthearted song, but seem uneasy themselves, troubled by Carmen's continuous doom-laden interjections. José is posted to guard the loot while the others leave to a rousing ensemble in jaunty style full of harmonic twists.

    Like on cue, the dire atmosphere gets again some tender relief when Micaëla next sings her elegant and glowing melody over swirling arpeggios in the celos and four horns - "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante." The two sweet outer sections sandwich a more dramatic middle section.

    As expected to keep up with the alternation, we dive right back into the testosterone-driven tense moment of the confrontation between José and Escamillo - a half-spoken, half-song duet starting with the line "Je suis Escamillo, Torero de Grenade!," with a second half that is often cut from productions since Bizet shortened it himself when the score was first published (it's the part in which Escamillo refrains from killing Don José when he could). The tense confrontation continues until the end of the act with the interference of the gypsies, and after the bullfighter leaves, the curtain falls on the off-stage voice of Escamillo singing again the Toreador Song over four cellos.

    Act IV

    The entr'act here is again dramatic and flavorful, void of any bucolic tones, placing the action right back in the city. It is based on some Spanish songs compiled by Manuel García. The woodwind plays the tune with the strings (pizzzicato style like in a guitar accompaniment). Rhythms in the orchestra are very pronounced, anticipating the very Spanish paso-doble style of the march that will follow when the curtain rises, for the bullfighting processional - "A deux cuartos! A deux-cuartos!" This is followed by the principal theme of the opera that we've heard in the prelude, with the chorus singing in counterpoint over loud trumpet calls - "Les voici! Voici la quadrille!" This goes on with orchestral marches to very impressive effect.

    What follows once more stresses the alternation between the festive and colorful music of Spain with the dark moods inside the hearts of the principals, when the halting duet between Carmen and José starts on the words "C'est toi! C'est moi!"

    The poignant confrontation goes on and is punctuated by chorus and fanfares in the arena - "Viva! viva! la course est belle!" in a striking contrast between the crowd enjoying themselves and the deathly events outside the bull ring.

    Don José quickly unravels into madness, which is illustrated in dizzy and sickening music until a declamatory Carmen issues her defiant shout of "Tiens!" when she throws the ring to his face. As he stabs her to death the fate/death motif heard at the very beginning of the opera ends it all over a grim final chord.

    What a fabulous musical rollercoaster!
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Carmen: Musical Structure started by Almaviva View original post

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