East of West pp 187-216 | Cite as

South of North: Carmen and French Nationalisms

  • Robert L. A. Clark


In a genre in which violent passion, sexual transgression, and the victimization of women tend to be the rule, Georges Bizet’s Carmen still manages to be exceptional a century and a quarter after its controversial premiere in Paris at the Opéra-Comique on March 3, 1875. Few would have expected, and perhaps least of all Bizet, who died exactly three months later, before his masterpiece had achieved wide acclaim, that Carmen would practically become synonymous with French opera and occupy the unshakable place in the canon that it has enjoyed now for over a century. Carmens lack of success at its premiere (or “failure,” according to many) cannot be attributed to any single factor, but certainly two in particular may be singled out: the newness of the music, which many critics qualified as “Wagnerian” (a term perhaps best understood as indicating Bizet’s defiance of the traditions of the opéra comique, which was considered a French national genre); and the “scabrous” subject, drawn from one of the best-known works of Prosper Mérimée. Bizet’s heroine, although a rather tempered version of her counterpart in the Mérimée novella, is a study in transgression. Indeed, her every dimension is placed under the sign of the other: female; doubly foreign and racially other, as a gypsy in Andalusia; working class (she works in the tobacco factory at the beginning of the opera); sexually dissident in relation to the bourgeois mores of the day; and, finally, an outlaw (she and her friends run contraband). And so she remains, defiantly, to the end.


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© Claire Sponsler and Xiaomei Chen 2000

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  • Robert L. A. Clark

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