Georges Bizet: Carmen Suite No. 2

Context

Premiered in Paris 1875, Georges Bizet’s now popular opera Carmen received quite a neutral response from French critics. The opera ran for an impressive 45 performances, however these were poorly attended and received by French audiences. It was only when the production started premiering in other European cities such as Vienna that it started to gain some traction. Within a year, Carmen had reached international acclaim, reaching as far as Mexico City, New York, Melbourne and Buenos Aires. 

It became common practice in the nineteenth century for composers to produce orchestral suites from their operas. This was for a few reasons. One being that it helped with the promotion of the opera, as well as reaching out to audiences who may not have the money to be able to see the opera in full. Opera was a very expensive outing and it was only the rich who were able to afford to see full productions. These orchestral suites made it more accessible for composers to get their music further afield, meaning concert halls were now also being filled with orchestral suites, overtures and arias. 

Often these orchestral suites did not attempt to follow the story of the opera at all, but instead just present the music as honestly as possible. This can certainly be said for Bizet’s Carmen Suites, which convey some of the atmospheres created in the opera, as well as musically being introduced to some of the main characters, without the plot being spoilt. 

Bizet sadly died during the 31st performance of Carmen in France, so he tragically never saw the international success it gained around the world. Bizet’s close friend Ernest Guirard produced the first suite in 1882, and the second suite in 1887. Carmen Suite No. 2 consists of six movements, but differently from the first suite, the second is full of songs that have been orchestrated for a full orchestra. 

 

The Music

Carmen Suite No. 2 is over double the length of the first suite, with it lasting around 24 minutes. Similarly to the first suite, the second does not relay the story of the opera in chronological order, although it does offer much more character descriptions of some of the main characters in the opera. 

 

I. Marche des contrebandiers (Act III)

 

After an ominous opening a gentle flute solo emerges, accompanied by pizzicato strings. The main melody is passed around the string section before the theme is developed through a flute duet. The melody bobs along for the entire work creating a warm and gentle atmosphere.

 

II. Habanera (Act I)

 

Habanera defines the character of Carmen. A temptress of the night, the first verse of the aria is led by the strings. This is then passed around the upper woodwind section, which adds to the seductive atmosphere. This is perhaps the most famous aria from the whole opera.

 

III. Nocturne (Act III)

 

A vast change in character happens in the third movement, which represents the naive character of Michela. A solo violin represents the voice in the aria, with the warm accompaniment from the strings echoing the naive and gentle character of Michela. Soaring horns end this gentle movement. 

 

IV. Chanson de toréador (Act III)

 

Another big character shift happens when Chanson de toréador begins with a rapturous Spanish fanfare. The movement’s theme represents the brash and bombastic Escamillo, and his voice is represented by the trumpet. The music is tense, dramatic and full of Spanish flair, which is at the heart of Carmen. 

 

V. Le garde montante (Act I)

 

Opening with a bold trumpet fanfare, this movement is the chorus of urchin children that open the opera. The children’s voices are depicted by the shrill woodwinds. These woodwinds and the trumpets begin in a musical dialogue which is jaunty in movement and playful in nature. 

 

VI. Danse bohème (Act II)

 

Finishing this dynamic suite is the gypsy-style work Danse bohème. Opening with a rousing flute duet, the melody is then utilised by other woodwind pairs, such as the clarinets. Starting slowly and quietly, the music slowly builds in tempo and dynamic all the way through until the ultimate climax where all the voices unite for an exciting finish.

 

Final Thoughts

Often performed as a full suite alongside the first, Carmen Suite No. 2 is full of sumptuous melodies, memorable arias and a fantastic array of characters, atmospheres and themes.

 

Happy Reading!

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