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Opera Essentials: Bizet's Carmen

Don't expect Spanish heat and gypsy passion from The Royal Opera's new production of Carmen.

By Sofie Vilcins (Content Producer (Engagement))

12 February 2018 at 1.00pm | 6 Comments

A quick search online for images of Carmen returns lots of red flamenco dresses and women with long black hair. For many, Carmen is a fiery Spanish woman whose fickle passion leaves broken men in her wake.

In this telling of the story, Carmen is a still a defiantly free spirit, who refuses to be cowed or silenced, but this production takes us from Carmen-the-opera to Carmen-the-cabaret, in a far-from-traditional piece of theatre.

The production 

This new production of Carmen has distinctively-staged musical numbers, energetic dance routines and arresting theatrical visuals, offering a new perspective on this enduringly popular classic. The central character is celebrated as a performer constantly reinventing herself, not least through an array of striking costumes. There are hints of inter-War European cabaret in the designs and in Carmen's wit and sexual confidence. The opera originally used spoken dialogue to tell the story between musical numbers; this is replaced with an unseen narrator, giving a fresh voice to Carmen herself.

Director Barrie Kosky is known for his inventive opera stagings – his Castor and Pollux at ENO and Saul at Glyndebourne both won awards, and he recently received acclaim for his highly original production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Royal Opera House.

The music 

The opera’s popularity owes much to Bizet’s music, which is packed with memorable melodies – the well-known Habanera (Carmen’s signature aria), the Toreador Song and the opera’s overture.

But there’s much more to enjoy. Because Bizet died so soon after the premiere, we have no definitive version of the opera. This version uses musical material written by Bizet for the score but not usually heard. This is the first time some of this music has ever been performed in London.

Much of Bizet’s score for Carmen has a Hispanic flavour, from the Spanish-inspired melody of Carmen’s Habanera to the dance rhythms threaded through the score. Bizet’s gift for writing catchy tunes reaches its peak in the flamboyance and masculinity of Escamillo’s Toreador Song, one of the most instantly recognizable arias in all classical music.

The story

Carmen is a woman with her own ideas about what her life should be. She warns men to beware of falling in love with her. Don José ignores her warning, and gives up his job, reputation and girlfriend to be with her. Growing bored of Don José and his obsessive nature, Carmen moves on to a very different type of man, the celebrity toreador Escamillo. But she does not anticipate the jealous passion that she will unleash in Don José.


Bizet took the plot of Carmen from the novella of the same name by the French writer Prosper Mérimée, who claimed that he had been inspired by a true story (some of the narration that Kosky has created for this production comes from Mérimée). It was a bold topic for the 1875 audience, drawing mixed reactions from both the press and the public. Bizet died just 3 months after the premiere and so never knew how popular the opera would come to be. In fact, Carmen is the second most performed opera in The Royal Opera’s repertory and has been consistently loved throughout the world since the 1880s.

Recommended if you like…

- La traviata
- La bohème
- Tosca

If you liked Carmen, why not try…

Mozart’s Don Giovanni, whose male protagonist shares Carmen’s independence and seductiveness; Verdi’s brilliantly witty and energetic Falstaff or Gounod’s Faust, another French opera whose riveting story inspired a host of glorious melodies.

Carmen runs until 16 March 2018. Tickets are still available.

Carmen will be relayed live to cinemas around the world on 6 March 2018.

Supported by

And staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Yvonne and Bjarne Rieber, Alan Howard, Trifon and Despina Natsis, The ROH Young Philanthropists, and the Friends of Covent Garden.

By Sofie Vilcins (Content Producer (Engagement))

12 February 2018 at 1.00pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Bizet, by Barrie Kosky, Carmen, opera, Opera Essentials, Production

This article has 6 comments

  1. Bryan Moore responded on 14 February 2018 at 11:56am Reply

    I rather like the understated "The opera’s popularity owes much to Bizet’s music". Mmm, probably so.

    Carmen's sexuality isn't to be found in her costumes, and come to that not in her curves either, although both help. No Sir, her sexuality is found in her facial expressions and above all in her eyes. If you don't believe me watch Elina Garanca and you'll see exactly what I mean.

    Speaking for myself, I don't like too much originality in the operas I have come to love. Give me tradition any day.

  2. John M. responded on 14 February 2018 at 6:27pm Reply

    I’m sorry, but this reads too much like an “apology” for a new production that has generally received middling to negative responses from both audiences and critics alike. If these are opera essentials, then why was the article only published after the first two performances? Did someone feel that a justification or defence for the production was necessary? Was someone worried that too many of the audience failed to get it? I was at the opening night and believe me, people got it all right; some left during the performance, some did not return after the interval, there was booing and cries of “Rubbish” at the end. Choose a cabaret-Carmen, if you want to, but please make the innovative staging work and add to the drama. I quote: “Don’t expect Spanish heat and gypsy passion ....” This might be read as: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate ...” Both read like warnings.

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 15 February 2018 at 10:45am

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your feedback.

      We usually aim to post Essentials articles prior to opening night, however it wasn't possible on this occasion.

      However, we did publish other material which explored Barrie Kosky's concept for the production including a fascinating Insights session (which is available to watch in full on-demand). The nature of the production (which although is new to Covent Garden, premiered in 2016 in Frankfurt) is also referenced on the production page.

      Sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy the production. Please do add your response to our 'Your Reaction' round-up (we create these after each opening night and live cinema relay), where - as you'll see - we welcome constructively critical responses as well as positive reviews.

      Best wishes,


  3. Sue Calcott responded on 16 February 2018 at 10:43pm Reply

    Why were the children not included for the final bows? Everyone else in the performance were given the chance to take applause for their part so why not the children?

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 19 February 2018 at 3:43pm

      Hi Sue,

      Child performers don't tend to take part in curtain calls because, as they're young, we try to get them home as quickly as possible. An exception may be made on first nights, when they may take their bows with the rest of the cast and creative team.

      Best wishes,


  4. Mark Valencia responded on 17 February 2018 at 10:28am Reply

    As the author of one particularly negative review, let me commend the ROH for its open approach to accommodating opinions both for and against its productions. Unfair to criticise it for standing by its work here.

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