Carmen traces the joined fates of the fiery gypsy Carmen and Don José, a naïve army corporal.
A square in Seville, with a tobacco factory and a guardroom
Corporal Moralés and the dragoons while away the time watching the passers-by, among whom is Micaëla, a peasant girl from Navarre. She asks Moralés if he knows Don José, and is told that he is a corporal in another platoon expected shortly to relieve the present guard. Avoiding the dragoons’ invitation to step inside the guardroom, Micaëla escapes, planning to return later. A trumpet call heralds the approach not only of the relief guard but also of a gang of street urchins who imitate their drill. As the guards change, Moralés tells José that a girl is looking for him.
The factory bell rings and the menfolk of Seville gather round the female workers as they return after their lunch break. Of all the women, the gypsy Carmen is awaited with the greatest anticipation. When the men gather round her, she tells them that the love they solicit, like a bird or a gypsy child, obeys no known laws. Only one man pays no attention to her – Don José – so Carmen teasingly throws a cassia flower in his face. The women go back into the factory and the crowd disperses.
Left alone, Don José is soon joined by Micaëla, bringing news of his mother. She has sent Micaëla, the orphan girl who lives with her, to tell José that his past misdemeanours are forgiven, and to give him a letter. When he starts to read her letter, Micaëla runs off in embarrassment since it suggests that he marry her. At the moment he decides to obey, a fracas is heard from within the factory. Zuniga, the lieutenant of the new guard, sends José to investigate. The girls blurt out sharply conflicting accounts of what has occurred, but it is certain that Carmen and one of her workmates quarrelled and that the other girl was wounded. Carmen, led out by José, scornfully refuses to answer any of Zuniga’s questions. José is ordered to bind her wrists and take her to prison. While the lieutenant is in the guardroom making out the order, Carmen remarks that José has kept the flower she threw and, when José forbids her to speak further, she launches into song.
She plans to go dancing at Lillas Pastia’s tavern outside the walls of Seville but, since she threw her latest lover out yesterday, will have no one to dance with. But she does know a certain corporal…. José agrees to help her escape if she promises a tryst with him. He unties the rope and, following a prearranged plan as they leave for prison, falls when she pushes him. Carmen escapes.
Lillas Pastia’s tavern
Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès entertain Zuniga and other officers. Zuniga tells Carmen that José was demoted and imprisoned for his part in her escape, but is this very day due for release. Carmen is overjoyed. A torchlight procession in honour of the bullfighter Escamillo is heard passing, and the officers invite him in. He describes the excitements of his profession, in particular the amorous rewards that follow a successful corrida. Escamillo then propositions Carmen, but she replies that she is otherwise engaged for the moment. He says he will wait. Carmen refuses to leave with Zuniga, who threatens to return later, and when the company has departed, the smugglers Dancaïre and Remendado enter. They have business in hand for which their regular female accomplices are essential. Frasquita and Mercédès are game, but Carmen refuses to leave Seville: she is in love. José’s song is heard in the distance , and the smugglers tactfully withdraw. Carmen upbraids José for not using the file and money that she sent him concealed in a bread roll, and remarks that she has been dancing for his officers. When he reacts jealousy, she agrees to dance for him alone. As she does so, bugles are heard sounding the retreat. José says that he must return to the barracks. Carmen mocks him for his callowness, but he answers by producing the flower she threw and telling her how it’s faded scent sustained his love during the long weeks in prison. But she replies that he doesn’t love her; if he did, he would desert and join her in a life of freedom in the mountains. When he refuses, she dismisses him contemptuously. As he leaves, Zuniga bursts in. In a jealous rage, José attacks him. The smugglers return, separate them, and put Zuniga under constraint. José now has no choice but to desert and join the smugglers.
The smugglers’ hideout in the mountains above Seville
The gang enters stealthily with contraband and pauses for a brief rest while Dancaïre and Remendado go on a recce. Carmen and José quarrel, and José gazes regretfully down the valley where his mother is living. Carmen advises him to join her. The women turn the cards to tell their fortunes: Frasquita and Mercédès foresee rich and gallant lovers, but Carmen’s cards spell death, for her and for José. She calmly accepts their prophecy. Remendado and Dancaïre return with the names of the three customs officers guarding the pass: Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès know how to deal with them. All depart. Micaëla enters, guided by a shepherd. He leaves her, but she says that she fears nothing so much as meeting the woman who has turned the man she once loved into a criminal. She hurries away in fright when a shot rings out. It is José firing at an intruder, who turns out to be Escamillo taking time off from rounding up bulls to visit Carmen. When he refers scornfully to the soldier whom Carmen once loved, José reveals himself and they fight. Escamillo toys with his opponent, goading him to ever-greater fury, but then slips and falls. Before José can kill him, Carmen and the smugglers return. Escamillo saunters away, inviting everyone, especially Carmen, to be his guests at the next bullfight in Seville. Micaëla’s hiding place is discovered, and she begs José to go with her to his mother but, since Carmen encourages him to do so, he furiously refuses. Micaëla then reveals that his mother is dying. José has no choice but to go, but he promises Carmen that they will meet again. As José and Micaëla leave, Escamillo is heard singing jauntily in the distance.
Outside the bullring in Seville
Amid the excited crowd cheering the bullfighters are Frasquita and Mercédès, who have heard that José is on the loose. A warrant is out for his arrest. Carmen enters on Escamillo’s arm. Frasquita and Mercédès warn Carmen that José has been seen in the crowd. She says that she is not afraid. José enters. He implores her to forget the past and start a new life with him. She tells him calmly that everything between them is over. Even though the cards have prophesied that he will kill her, she will never give in: she was born free and free she will die. While the crowd is heard cheering Escamillo, José tries to prevent Carmen from joining her new lover and in jealous rage seeks to drag her away. Carmen finally loses her temper, takes from her finger the ring that José once gave her, and throws it at his feet. José stabs her. As the crowd pours out of the bullring, he confesses to the murder of the woman he loved.
© Rodney Milnes