From the opening, the ballet is infused with the traditions and mysteries of Spain and the belief in the power of Fate. From the midst of the group emerge one man and one woman whom Fate binds together, sealing their destiny with a flower.
We see Carmen in the cigar factory where, more inclined to revel in life than to work, she and two gypsy friends begin to dance. At the height of the dance, a fight breaks out between Carmen and a woman, who ends up being cut by Carmen's knife. José arrives with the soldiers to arrest Carmen; but, as José approaches her the room stills and Fate once again shows her power. Left alone to question Carmen, José falls prey to her charms. He makes her a deal that he will allow her to escape on the way to the prison.
Stripped of his rank and imprisoned, José reflects on this woman who has seeped into his being. He attempts to throw away the flower but Fate will not allow this.
At Pastias, a tavern, where Carmen and her friends dance until the late hours before setting out on their nightly adventures, we encounter Escamillo. Proud and elegant, he relates in dance his conquests of the day. He seeks to win over Carmen, who initially leads him on, but in the end Escamillo leads the revelers into the streets. Carmen is about to leave too when José appears from the shadows. She is amused and ready to honor her debts. José, no longer able to resist Carmen, possesses her for a moment. When he shows his nervousness, Carmen mocks José and, feeling her debt is paid, kicks him out.
José struggles to keep his attention on his guard duties but he is haunted by Carmen. In the shadows lovers meet and dance. In all the women he thinks he sees Carmen. Obsessed, he seeks out Pastias again.
José finds Carmen, but in the arms of his captain, Zuniga. She refuses José's demands that she come away with him. In desperation, José challenges Zuniga to a fight in which Zuniga is killed. Drawn by the bond of spilt blood, Carmen leads José safely away and to her way of life.
Carmen appears in disguise among the women of society in order to lure the wealthy men into her net. In the shadows, the fugitive José tries to steal a moment with Carmen. Rejected, José reflects upon his life . . . although he has lost forever his old life and its values, he does not have Carmen's love. He is whisked away by two gypsies. Carmen is successful in leading the wealthy men into the shadows where José and the gypsies rob them.
At dawn, José must retreat from the public eye. From his hiding place he sees the street children, the dragoons, and is shocked to see Carmen flirting with Escamillo. When the crowd departs, José emerges worn and destroyed. He longs to shed his fate but finally he accepts it.
Carmen is preparing for the bullfight. She has taken a new lover. Frightened by the vision of Fate in her mirror, she is relieved to find it is only José. He desperately tries one more time to possess Carmen but she will not be tamed. When he threatens her with a knife, Carmen only laughs at her fate . . . she will not be possessed or caged.
In front of the arena, the people display their best dresses. Carmen arrives with Escamillo and together they fire up the fiesta. José arrives, externally transformed to his former self but internally he is driven by one thought and one passion. The tension grows as Carmen refuses him and continues to dance with Escamillo. As the celebrations proceed into the bullring, José forces Carmen back. He will possess Carmen or deny her to anyone else. Carmen equally of one mind, refuses him. As Carmen turns and sees her fate, she falls upon José's knife. Was it her fate to be stabbed, or did she buy her freedom on his knife? As Carmen kisses José good-bye, she pulls the fated flower from his pocket. Fate removes the flower and leaves José in eternal possession of Carmen.
Carmen as a Ballet
Petipa, before his days as the great choreographer of Russian ballet, drew on Mérimée's Carmen for his Carmen et son Toréro in Madrid, 1845, some thirty years before Bizet's opera.
Carmen was one of the popular ballets produced at London's Alhambra Theatre and was seen in at least three different incarnations: October 20, 1897, with choreography by A. Bertrand and music by Georges Jacobi; in 1903 with choreography by Lucia Cormani and music by Georges Bizet & George W. Byng; and again in 1912, choreography by Augustin Berger and music by Georges Bizet, George W. Byng and George Clutsam.
During the late 1800s ballet in Europe was out of favor and dancers were usually engaged only for incidental dances in operas. In London ballet took root in two great music halls, The Alhambra and the Empire in Leicester Square, where it occupied a large part of the program alongside variety acts. Ballet flourished in these theaters and attracted a large following. However, the raising of artistic standards was not paramount. These audiences were seeking light entertainment and above all wanted to feel that they were experiencing a show that was up to date. Initially there was little dramatic action in these ballets but by the 1890s ballets with complicated plots were being presented.
The Alhambra maintained a large corps de ballet and engaged celebrity choreographers including A. Bertrand, Carlo Copi, Alfred Curt and Joseph Harness. Male dancers were at a premium and usually confined to dancing a national dance or an eccentric number; a pure classical dancer was regarded as effete or even loathsome. For this reason the roles of young men were often taken by women following the British traditions of the "principal boy" in "pantos" being played by a female. The music was generally arranged by the theater's musical director, George Jacobi, who held the position for twenty six years during which time he was associated with some one hundred ballets. He was succeeded by G.W. Byng in 1898.
No expense was spared on star ballerinas who included Emma Bessone, Maria Bordin, Cecillia Cerri, and most famous of all, Pierina Legnani who performed her famous thirty two consecutive fouettés at the Alhambra before introducing them in Petipa's Swan Lake.
The first adaptation of Bizet's music to full ballet was by Roland Petit for his Ballets de Paris in 1949. The many dance rhythms in Bizet's score make it ideal for dancing. The music for Petit's ballet (in five acts, that loosely follows the opera), was re-arranged by André Girad. Renée (Zizi) Jeanmaire was Carmen, and Petit took the role of Don José himself. It was for Carmen that Renée Jeanmaire first cropped her hair and thus initiated a fashion, as did Antoni Clavé with his designs that made the corset type bodice a fixture of ballet design of the period.
Petit's Carmen has been filmed for television including one version with Jeanmaire, Baryshnikov and Petit's Ballet de Marseilles.
Apart from selections from the original Bizet score and the subsequent orchestral suites, the most used adaptation of Bizet's music is that composed by Rodion Shchedrin for the ballet created for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, by Alberto Alonso.
Alonso began to create his Carmen before a note of the music was prepared. Two years before he visited Moscow and worked with Plisetskaya he began working out movements with members of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Only once Shchedrin saw the rehearsals with Plisetskaya did he commit to writing the music. The scenario was developed by Alonso and departs from the familiar opera plot. The emphasis is on the characters of Carmen, Don José and the toreador rather than the plot. The setting is an abstraction of a bullring with dancers in masks seated on tall stools representing the spectators. The fatal contest within this arena of life is between Carmen and her Fate - in the manifestation of a black bull. Neither is victorious; they die simultaneously because, as Plisetskaya explains, "Carmen and her fate are one and the same." Boris Messerer designed the set. The premiere took place April 20, 1967 with the Bolshoi Ballet.