Breaking out in a cold sweat every time you think of Bizet’s masterpiece? Inexplicably, you can hum every tune, but, really, you don’t know anything about it…Was it something to do with bullfighting and smuggling? Relax! This short guide gives you all the tools you need to dazzle your fellow opera-goers in Cambridge.

The Cambridge University Opera Society has always been ambitious in its choice of repertoire, and now it’s time for yet another challenge: a fully-staged production of Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most popular operas ever composed.

You can point out the entertaining confusion of an opera set in a Spanish cigarette factory and bullring, sung in French with English subtitles

The action is set in Sevilla, where naïve soldier Don José is seduced by the fiery gypsy Carmen. José abandons his sweetheart Micaëla, deserts the army, and follows his beloved Carmen and her band of smugglers into the mountains. However, Carmen quickly tires of José’s possessive love and turns her attentions to the glamorous matador Escamillo. In the end, José goes off the rails and kills Carmen in a jealous fury.

Simply put: he loves her, it’s complicated, she dies. As you take your seat, explain to your impressed neighbour that this simple model of ‘kill the leading lady’ has worked for several perennial opera favourites: Dido and Aeneas, La Traviata, Manon and La Bohème, to name just a few. As a seasoned bluffer, you can then point out the entertaining linguistic confusion of an opera set in a Spanish cigarette factory and bullring, sung in French with English subtitles.

Carmen (Chloë Allison) and her smugglers (Andrei Smid, Michael Hong)Johannes Hjorth

The libretto is based on the rather risqué novella by Prosper Mérimée. To placate the theatre directors, Bizet’s librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, made significant changes to the original text. During the interval, don’t forget to nonchalantly list them for the benefit of your crowd of admirers: in the book, Carmen is a married murderess and Don José not only kills her, but at least three other people into the bargain. Meilhac and Halévy also upgraded Escamillo from unimportant picador to star-matador and added in goody-goody Catholic Micaëla as a contrast to the gypsy heroine.

Prepare yourself to be shocked and scandalised all over again by giant shoulder pads and underwear as outerwear!

All to no avail. As any cultured bluffer should know, Carmen’s first run at the Parisian Opéra Comique in 1875 was far from successful. Audiences were thoroughly shocked and scandalised by the immorality, brutality, and lawlessness of the characters – not to mention the butchering of the main heroine on stage. And what a heroine! Carmen is one of the most seductive and charismatic women in all opera, fighting for her right to be free. No wonder, then, that only Micaëla’s aria got any applause in Act 3 on the first night. The last act of the opera was greeted with stony silence…

Bizet died three months after the premiere, at the age of 36, persuaded by the critics that his last opera was a hopeless flop – pauvre Georges! After his death, the score was subject to significant changes and there still is no standard edition – an endless source of musicological squabbling. That doesn’t stop tunes from the opera, like Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ from Act 1 or Escamillo’s toreador aria from Act 2, cropping up everywhere – from adverts to ringtones. On the subject of the ‘Habanera’, here’s one more scandalous titbit to whisper in your neighbour’s ear during the frenetic applause: Bizet accidentally stole the celebrated tune from the Spanish composer Sebastián Yradier, taking it to be a genuine folk song. But pauvre Georges was a good guy: when he realised his mistake, he acknowledged Yradier in the vocal score.


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Carmen still evokes strong reactions in modern-day critics and audiences, especially when directors dare to mess with the recipe. Recently, Barrie Kosky’s brilliant coup of putting Carmen in a gorilla suit for her ‘Habanera’ was hotly contested. The Cambridge University Opera Society’s production will transplant the action to the Sevillian slums in the 1980s: prepare yourself to be shocked and scandalised all over again by giant shoulder pads and underwear as outerwear!

And one more thing bluffers - don't forget to sign up for free to the Royal Opera House’s YoungROH mailing list to get alerts about tickets deals and events: http://www.roh.org.uk/for/rohstudents!

Carmen is on at 7:45pm on Thursday 21st to Saturday 23rd February 2019 in West Road Concert Hall. Matinée performance at 1:30pm on Saturday 23rd February 2019. You can purchase tickets here: https://adcticketing.com/carmen

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