“Yesterday—would you believe it?—I heard Bizet’s masterpiece for the twentieth time." - The Premiere of "Carmen" in 1875

3 March 1875, Bizet’s “Carmen” premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris.

“Yesterday—would you believe it?—I heard Bizet’s masterpiece for the twentieth time. Once more I attended with the same gentle reverence; once again I did not run away. This triumph over my impatience surprises me. How such a work completes one! Through it one almost becomes a “masterpiece” oneself—And, as a matter of fact, each time I heard Carmen it seemed to me that I was more of a philosopher, a better philosopher than at other times: I became so forbearing, so happy, so Indian, so settled. ... Bizet’s music seems to me perfect. It comes forward lightly, gracefully, stylishly. It is lovable, it does not sweat. “All that is good is easy, everything divine runs with light feet”: this is the first principle of my æsthetics. This music is wicked, refined, fatalistic, and withal remains popular...“ (Friedrich Nietzsche “The Case of Wagner”)

Aleksandr Golovin "Carmen" (1908)
 A concept for the costume of the female lead by the
 Russian painter and stage designer Aleksandr Golovin (1863 – 1930) from 1908

It wasn’t the British Music Hall and not quite the Italian opera buffa. By the second half of the 19th century, the French opéra comique wasn’t even comic. They all had, in contrast to the grand opera, long recitatives and more dialogue, but the opéra comique’s most distinguishing feature was the subject matter, no heroes of antiquity, no nobility but the everyday difficulties of the hoi polloi, scaled up into dramatic dimensions. Thus, Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Gypsies” from 1824 and Prosper Mérimée’s tale of the Basque dragoon José Lizarrabengoa and the half-Basque, half-Romani cigar factory worker Carmen, their life of crime cum jealousy drama rather fitted the bill of the opéra comique. "I have written a work that is all clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody” Bizet wrote in the summer of 1874 when he had finished what would become his last opera. And even though he had never been to Spain, his Romantic genre painting of culture, customs and ways of the lower orders of Seville was conceived as too realistic, too gross even for the opéra comique. And it helped to ring in a new style of operas, known as verismo, realism, that would dominate the world’s stages for the next generation.

Marius-Antoine Barret (1865 - 1929): La Belle Otero as Carmen (1898)
Dancer, actress and courtesan "La Belle" Otero as Carmen in 1898
 by Marius-Antoine Barret (1865 - 1929) 

Carmen, who did not give a hang about the bourgeois morals of the day was strong stuff for contemporary palates, even if the visual arts as well as literature had long since explored and elaborated on the depths of her tale. Serious music was just a bit slow on the uptake. And while Gounod had already graced the opéra comique with musical adaptions of Goethe’s severe German sujets, “Wilhelm Meister” and “Faust” and complained after the premiere that Bizet had the cheek to just give his, Gounoud’s, tunes Spanish airs, Massenet and Saint-Saëns who were also present during “Carmen’s” premiere, clapped Bizet on the shoulder and tried to comfort him over the audience’s rather mediocre excitement. Bizet was crestfallen, though. And he would not live to see his last work becoming one of the world’s most famous operas. He died three months later at the age of 36 of a heart attack and was buried at Père Lachaise. In October of the same year, “Carmen” was staged in Vienna and became a smashing success in the German-speaking countries at the first go. Even Bismarck saw it thrice. And the popularity of Bizet’s masterpiece endures to this day.

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