Published: February 6, 2019
Carmen, now one of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the world, had its premiere on this day in Paris. But its story of an army officer's seduction – and betrayal – by a voluptuous and sensuous cigarette factory worker stunned its French audience and the first performance was greeted with stony silence.
Until this ‘vulgar’ new opera came along and shook the public, the composer, Georges Bizet, had enjoyed moderate success.
But nobody was prepared for the opera's theme of erotic obsession, the sight of women smoking on stage and the parade of “low-life” characters.
One critic noted that the audience in Paris was “shocked by the drastic realism of the action”. Others said that the audience was scandalised by the opera’s "obscenity" and "immorality".
Critics went on to have a field day, condemning Carmen as “vulgar”, “undramatic” and “contemptible”. What's more, a noted librettist and dramatist of the day, Jean Henri Dupin, wrote: "I won't mince words. Carmen is a flop, a disaster! It will never play more than twenty times. The music goes on and on. It never stops. There's not even time to applaud."
Performances did continue after the disastrous premiere but as word spread of the critical onslaught and the negative audience reaction, the opera house had to give away free tickets to fill seats.
Bizet was stunned by the reception his work received. He believed he had written something greater than all his other works and had written in a letter to a friend that he had “absolute certainty of having found my path”.
He added: “They make out that I am obscure, complicated, tedious, more fettered by technical skill than lit by inspiration. Well, this time I have written a work that is full of clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody.”
Today's critics would agree with him. In the first Act Carmen and her fellow cigarette-factory workers stream out at the end of a day. In the colourful scene local young men surround them and start to flirt – but singing the unforgettable Habanera, Carmen explains her heart can’t be tied down: "Love is a rebellious bird that none can tame".
When she is arrested for an attack on another woman with a knife, Carmen comes up with an escape plan that involves seducing the soldier Don José. The pair become lovers and run away together, but their happiness will be short-lived and end in tragedy.
On the night of Carmen’s 31st performance Bizet died of a heart attack, still believing his opera was a failure. He would never know that his scandalous opera about an irrepressible young Spanish woman would go on to become one of the best known and best loved pieces of music of all time.
The tragedy of the composer's death at the tender age of 36 reawakened interest in Carmen, and it was soon revived with great success. Within months, a second production in Vienna was acclaimed a masterpiece and in the next three years it was produced in most of the major opera houses of Europe.
After that, it conquered the world – and has continued to do so to this day.