New York City Opera Project: Carmen

Carmen's First Performance: March 3, 1874
Ludovic Halévy

The following description of the first performance of Carmen, on March 3, 1875 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, as well as of subsequent early performances, was written by one of the two librettists, Ludovic Halévy, long afterward, in 1904:

The last few rehearsals came off very well. The cast had recovered their courage and confidence. The press was not admitted to the dress rehearsal [on March 2]. We invited only about 50 people, friends of the authors and of the performers and directors, the costumiers and set designers. None seemed to find the work scandalous: On the contrary, it was exceedingly well received .... We might have gone to the opening performance full of confidence the following evening, had not several morning papers published vitriolic letters, written as though by the same person. One commented: "Carmen presents most unsavory characters, in such bad taste that the work might very well be ill-advised."

The Opening Run of Performances

In spite of these comments we reached the theater full of optimism. The arrival of Carmen was well received and applauded, as was the duet between Micaela and Don José. As Act I ended there were many curtain calls. Backstage, Bizet was surrounded, congratulated. Act II, less enthusiasm. It opened brilliantly. The entrance of Escamillo [the Toreador] was most effective. But then the audience cooled ... surprised, unhappy, ill-at-ease. Backstage, fewer admirers, congratulations restrained. No enthusiasm at all for Act III except for Micaela's aria. The audience was frigid during Act IV. Only a few faithful devotees of the composer came backstage. Carmen was not a success .... After the failure of the première, performances continued – – not, as wrongly stated, to empty houses. On the contrary, the box office flourished .... I was awakened at 2 AM on June 3 to learn that Bizet had died of a heart attack at the very moment the curtain had fallen on the 32nd performance.

Later Performances

The hour of true recognition was slow in coming. Carmen was performed only 16 more times [in the Paris run]. After the 48th performance the Director of the opera house resigned, in 1876.

But the Imperial Opera in Vienna (Austria) and the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels (Belgium) were another story. Performed in Vienna on October 23, 1875, Carmen was a complete success. It was recreated as a spectacle. The Imperial Ballet injected music [from another of Bizet's operas] into Act IV, and a parade of toreadors was added, preceded and followed by picadors on horseback. The entrance to the bullring was a grandiose, picturesque scene. All Vienna came running. By contrast, the Brussels performance stuck to the script – – no added ballet, no horses. Its success too was complete and spontaneous. Similar successes followed in St. Petersburg, London, New York, and Naples.

Ludovic Halévy