Bizet’s Carmen is first premiered on Opera Comique (Paris) at 1875. This is the last piece of Bizet. Opera was commissioned by Opera Comique. The choice of ‘’Carmen’’ has led to an impass since the heroine is an unusual character and the fact that she dies on the stage. Carmen’s story was based on Prosper Mérimée’s book. The first reception of the opera was not very successful. Carmen is in the Opera Comique genre although the characters Carmen and Dan Jose were very unusual for that genre, in contrast more familiar to Verismo style.
The opera takes place in Spain and it is about the downfall of soldier Dan Jose and the gypsy girl Carmen who is a very strong female character – unusual when comparing the fragile heroines in operas; Violetta, Mimi etc.
Carmen’s orchestration, melodic and harmonic structure was considered perfect by many critics and given as reason to its timeless popularity. Opera has a Spanish flavor; ‘’Habenera’’, "Seguidilla" are examples where Bizet used the folk melody; he places folk songs and rhythm and instrumentation of flamenco. As opposed to the operas at that time, Carmen’s solos are actually songs that take place in the play; heroine doesn’t have an aria that is used to express an emotion in frozen plot. When she has a solo, she is actually dancing or singing in the plot.
Overture defined as ‘’the piece in two or more sections that formed a solemn introduction to a ballet, opera or oratorio’’ in Grove dictionary. It usually summarizes the opera by pre-stating the melodies of important arias, leitmotifs, harmonic structure etc. The overture starts with a bull fight theme in the last act. It is a cheerful, fast theme. We hear the complete team repeated twice. Then we have a secondary motif and a thrill we again hear the bull fighter theme for the third time. Then a sudden switch to Toreador Song from the Act 2 from strings only and then repeated with full orchestra. But before the end of the repetition, there is a modulation within the end of the theme which is unexpected and serves as a quick connection to the first theme again. It connects to the first theme as same pitch as before – the modulation effect is only present for several measures. After hearing the bullfighter theme for the fourth time, it ends. But, after a small pose, violins start with tremolo and cellos introduce a dramatic theme which is associated with Carmen and her fate in the opera. The tension is built with long tremolos, ascending notes, crescendo and dramatic melody. After that there is a sudden stop with no conclusion.
The repetition of the bullfight theme and the connections of the other themes to the first theme, lead to the assumption that we do not want to move away from the first theme and always wants to go back. First theme serves as a tonic, as an ultimate arrival goal. At the end of the second repetition of the first theme, the switch to secondary motive - which is more rhythmic than melodic - is not impressive as the return to the first theme. Also, when we switch to the Toreador Song, we only have a rhythm which weakens the connection as in reducing the energy we have from the first theme. In the first part of the overture is mainly the bullfight theme and a Toreador Song which is associated with Escamillo. Although it is a secondary character, and Don Jose has a crucial role in Carmen’s life, we hear mostly the joyful bullfighter themes and songs. Also similar to the end where Carmen’s death only creates few melodic lines above the Toreador Song people are singing. There is no melodic reference to the Don Jose character in the overture – although the Carmen theme also heard in the beginning of his famous aria ‘’La Fleur Que Tu M'avais Jetée’’- emphasizing that he is a weak character, which we all thought until the very end of the opera. After the tension building, audience is expecting a closer. However, as happened in the end, audience is getting tensed by the strength of Carmen and unexpected killing eliminates the closer. The motif is played by clarinet, bassoon, cornet and cellos over tremolo strings. After the crescendo, the sudden end may be indicating that the summary is interrupted with the sudden change of mind of telling a story from the beginning.
Carmen scored for 2 flutes (piccolo), 2 oboes (english horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, side drum, harp and strings. Instruments are within the expected range. It has a heterophonic structure. The first theme is more dynamic than the other themes in the overture. It is always more forte as it is a celebration theme. Other themes that are used in between are juxtaposed with the first theme. The key signature indicates A Major. Chordal motion is slow and repetitive.
Overture is in the 2-4 meter. The opera uses the Spanish folk music rhythms, however in the overture; the characteristic rhythm of the piece belongs to the first theme. It is more fast than others, has a celebration pattern and the rhythm is a reference to the rhythmic pattern of a running bull. In the statement of Toreador Song, there is a difference of rhythm since the second one is played staccato. In the first theme, there is a characteristic rhythmic pattern of 3 times of one eighth note + 2 sixteenth notes + 4 sixteenth notes ending with half note. In the Toreador Song section, the characteristic rhythmic structure is the usages of eight and sixteenth rests and the staccato and legato phrases that creates a contrast.
The melody is diatonic. It uses both stepwise and leaping motion. The melodic phrases are even to the length of grouped rhythmic patterns. Phrases repeated in the themes as analyzed above. Melody is in the violins in the first theme, and in the cellos in the Carmen motive. In the first theme, the general shape of the phrase is; in the first half of the phrase we have a static notes connected with a leap to descending stepwise motion, and in the second half of the phrase we have a static notes connected with a leap to ascending stepwise motion.
Growth is signaled both with repetition as seen in the repetitive motion of the first theme, and modulation within the last measures of the theme– the unexpected, early returning from Toreador Song to the first theme. The repetition of the first theme is identical in every repetition, whereas in the second repetition of the Toreador Song there is small variation. For the full understanding of the growth, the whole opera should be considered rather than just the overture.
Carmen is the timeless piece that uses the Spanish motives. The tunes are very original and imaginative. The tunes are presenting the complicated characters perfectly with a great instrumentation. Other than wonderful arias, the instrumentation – which is performed also as Suits 1&2 – and the songs referred to in the opera create its richness. Even in the overture, one can understand that its unique form by the division of the overture, he unexpected end… Carmen’s character couldn’t even fit into the overture.
La Rue’s technique of SHMRG is valid for the piece. However, since it is only a part of the piece and meant to serve as a summary of whole opera, the technique could be more useful and accurate if it was applied to the whole opera.