It's a story full of misunderstandings: Love is confused with desire, an affair with an exclusive relationship, affection with possession, and violence with passion. But the highest price in this web of dysfunctional relationships is paid by Carmen – a woman who loves her independence more than anything else, including men. Her murderer is the dutiful soldier Don José, who until now only had eyes for his mother and the young Micaëla, with whom he grew up together. But when he notices Carmen, the worker coveted by all his comrades, he also falls for her. After Carmen’s arrest due to a bloody scuffle, José enables her to escape and follows her into illegality. Both of them now live in a gang of smugglers. Yet while living together, José puts Carmen under pressure with his jealousy and loses her affection.
When he returns from a visit to his mother, he finds that Carmen is now in love with the successful bullfighter Escamillo. Although Carmen is aware of José's tendency towards uncontrolled violence, she faces the confrontation. While Escamillo hunts down a bull in the arena, José stabs his former girlfriend in the forecourt.
The fact that the opera is set exclusively in the lower strata of society, among soldiers, smugglers, Spanish Roma and factory workers, was considered shocking to the Paris audience at its premiere in 1875. Not to mention that the dying title heroine was refused a farewell aria – which was also felt to be an expression of harshness and violence. It was not until the Vienna performance series that the triumphal march of Carmen began that same year. Two musical motifs characterize the opera: the self-confident refrain of the famous »Toréador« song and a mysterious, sombre motif associated with Carmen's premature and violent death, which she perceives as fateful. In the finale, when the victorious torero is cheered in the bullring while the stabbed Carmen collapses at the gates, the two melodies come together.
The literary model for the opera – a novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée – shows Carmen as a morally depraved person who unscrupulously exploits men for her own ends or even lures them into deadly traps. Georges Bizet and his librettists, on the other hand, transformed their main character into a fascinating woman whom men find so attractive precisely because she refuses to accept traditional norms. It is not with her looks but with her voice that she draws Don José’s attention to herself by singing a habanera, a dance song of African-American origin: »L'amour est un oiseau rebelle« (»Love is a rebellious bird«). Carmen's dazzling and non-conformist personality is reflected in her singing part, which is as powerful as it is tender.
The worldwide celebrated Anita Rachvelishvili for her role as Carmen will embody the protagonist for the first time at the Vienna State Opera, followed by Michèle Losier in the performances in May and June. The figure of Micaëla does not exist in the literary version; she was invented by Bizet and his librettists as a counter-figure to Carmen. The music portrays her as gentle instead of quick-tempered, as yielding and familiar instead of demanding and alien: her love and the love of José's mother, as whose messenger she acts, are hardly separable. But Micaëla also has a different, courageous and strong side, which shows itself at the very latest when she overcomes her fear and follows Don José when he loses his way to separate him from the smuggling gang and bring him back home. Whether she is telling the truth when she persuades Don José to come along with her by claiming that his mother is dying remains open. In February, Olga Kulchynska can be heard in this role at the Vienna State Opera for the first time, in May Vera-Lotte Boecker from our ensemble will make her debut. At home in Vienna, but at the Vienna State Opera for his inaugural performance, is conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada.
After Calixto Bieito had risen to fame as an acting director, »Carmen« became his first major opera production in 1999. Since then he has reworked and refined this legendary production several times. For him Carmen is neither the male fantasy of a femme fatale nor an emancipation symbol, but a character with individuality. Bieito shows the world of soldiers, workers and crooks in a Spanish border area free of »gypsy« kitsch and clichéd images; flamenco is only quoted ironically among Carmen's friends. But bullfighting is as much a living tradition as it is a symbol for the fight between two people - or is it the other way around? Incidentally, this production is also the director’s declaration of love to the people of his home country.
Wiener Staatsoper’s production was originally created by San Francisco Opera in co-production with Boston Lyric Opera.