Carmen is the opera that virtually everybody knows a bit of, even if they don’t actually know they know it. Great, often instantly recognisable tunes spill liberally out of Bizet’s masterpiece – the fiery Overture, Carmen’s slinky ‘Habanera’, her dashing ‘Gypsy Song’, Escamillo’s testosterone-fuelled ‘Toréador’ – resurfacing pell-mell in various manifestations of popular culture (not least the old Sunpat peanut butter ads), and inspiring a range of adaptations, such as Hammerstein’s brilliant musical Carmen Jones.


Carmen is, however, much more than just a string of pretty melodies. The heroine’s confrontational sexual independence was thought scandalous, indeed revolutionary in its period (1875), and can still provoke and shock contemporary audiences. Her gory demise (knifed in the heart by Don José, a jilted lover) prompted Friedrich Nietzsche to dub the opera ‘vicious, painful, tragic, fatalistic’. Nietzsche, with typical acuity, also praised the music’s Gallic refinement, admiring how it addressed the listener ‘lightly, flexibly, courteously’, and judging the work as a whole ‘perfect’. Audiences worldwide continue to agree with Nietzsche’s verdict.

What to try next…

Puccini: Madam Butterfly

Carmen is stabbed to death by a jealous lover. Puccini’s Butterfly, by contrast, turns a sword upon herself when Pinkerton, her faithless American ‘husband’, returns to Nagasaki with the real Mrs Pinkerton to claim the son he fathered on a naval posting three years previously. Butterfly’s heartbroken suicide elicited from Puccini a peroration of passionate intensity, every bit the equal of Bizet’s dramatic dénouement. Madam Butterfly vies with Carmen as the greatest of all crowd-pleasing popular operas, and in its sharp criticism of rapacious American imperialism, retains an all-too-obvious contemporary relevance.

Essential recording:

Renata Scotto, Rome Opera Orchestra/
Sir John Barbirolli

EMI 567 8852

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

Like Butterfly, Lucia loves in vain, and dies for it. This time, it is family factionalism and feuding in Lowland Scotland that destroy her aspirations to marry Edgardo, her brother’s sworn enemy. Donizetti’s tonal palette is leaner and darker than that of either Bizet or Puccini, but appropriate to Sir Walter Scott’s murky tale of thwarted passion. The Act II sextet, for instance, is an astonishingly powerful articulation of the warring emotions of the central characters. Lucia kills the husband forced on her, is unhinged mentally, and sings the harrowing ‘Mad Scene’, a locus classicus of 19th-century prima donna suffering.

Essential recording:
Maria Callas, Philharmonia/Tullio Serafin

EMI 556 2842

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Dido dies not so much of thwarted love as of simple abandonment. When Aeneas, temporarily her lover, quits Carthage without her, her world implodes and, leaving it, she sings the deeply affecting lament ‘When I am laid in earth’. ‘Death is now a welcome guest,’ she muses darkly, and she means it – she is as utterly devoid of hope as Don José in Carmen. Earlier the score is peppered with variety, including an echo chorus, a thunderstorm, a comic scene with sailors, and jaunty dance episodes. Purcell packs it all into just an hour, making this a pocket masterpiece.

Essential recording:
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907110

Bellini: Norma

Druidic priestess Norma is a dying diva with a difference, one of few in operatic history to voluntarily embrace her personal date with destiny. Emotionally ravaged in a classic love-triangle situation, she threatens to kill her two children by Pollione, the occupying Roman proconsul. She finally mounts a blazing sacrificial pyre with him, to the astonishment of all present. The plot is gruesome, but Bellini’s music is of alluring lyric purity, the epitome of the Italian bel canto tradition. ‘Casta Diva’ is Norma’s calling card, an aria of mesmerising beauty (it subsequently featured in an episode of
The Simpsons), and the closing duet with Pollione is throat-catchingly poignant.

Essential recording:
Maria Callas, Orchestra del Teatro alla
Scala di Milano/Tullio Serafin

EMI 566 4282

Verdi: La traviata

Disease strikes prima donnas frequently, providing a suitably lachrymose conclusion to many a tangled libretto. Of all the great operatic tear-jerkers, none is more reliably effective than La traviata – the story of the tragic courtesan who ill-advisedly falls in love above her social station – is guaranteed to have a fair proportion of any audience grappling for its hankies. Especially when wedded, as it is, to Verdi’s achingly lyrical music, from the yearning poignancy of the already doom-laden orchestral prelude to the shattering moment when she reads a letter of reconciliation from her lover, belatedly received on her deathbed as she expires from consumption.

Essential recording:
Ileana Cotrubas, Bavarian State Opera Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber

DG 477 7115

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice

Here’s a rarity – an operatic heroine who is dead at the outset, comes back to life, expires a second time, then is miraculously resurrected at the work’s conclusion. Not a real-life scenario, naturally, but one drawn from the realms of myth. Orfeo sings the opera’s most famous number (the ravishing ‘Che farò senza Euridice’), melting the god Amor’s heart and definitively restoring Euridice to the realms of the living. In seeking to purge opera of elements unnecessary to the dramatic action, Gluck wrote (as conductor John Eliot Gardiner
puts it) ‘music of extraordinary purity, directness and concision’.

Essential recording:
Veronica Cangemi, Freiberg Baroque Orchestra/René Jacobs

Harmonia Mundi HMC901742-43

For more details on Bizet and his development of Carmen, read the January issue of BBC Music Magazine, where he is our Composer of the Month.


This article appeared in the October 2007 issue of BBC Music Magazine.


Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.