In a square in Seville, a group of soldiers waits outside the guardhouse. A young woman, Micaëla, approaches the officer Moralès and asks about a soldier named Don José. The men tease Micaëla, and she leaves. Don José arrives and discovers Micaëla has been looking for him. The cigarette factory bell rings, and the young men of the town watch for Carmen as the cigarette girls come into the square. They ask Carmen to love them, but she refuses. Love, she says in her famous “Habanera,” is like a wild bird—free and unbound. Then she throws a flower at José, who has paid her no attention. He is offended, but attracted to her at the same time. Micaëla returns and brings José greetings and a kiss from his mother; José then gives Micaëla a message and a kiss to pass on. She leaves.
When Carmen wounds another girl in a fight, a riot flares up among the cigarette girls. The officer Zuniga sentences Carmen to jail. He leaves, ordering José to supervise her. In the aria “Près des ramparts de Séville” Carmen seduces José and appeals to him for help. He succumbs to her advances and allows her to escape.
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At Lillas Pastia’s tavern, Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès celebrate their way of life. Escamillo arrives to much fanfare, proudly describing the life of a toreador in his famous “Toreador Song.” He flirts with Carmen, but, gaining no ground with her, leaves. Dancaïre and Remendado plan their next smuggling operation. But Carmen, to their dismay, refuses to go with them. Instead, she waits for José. Imprisoned for allowing Carmen’s escape, he has just been released from jail.
Reunited with Carmen, José fervently proclaims his love for her. She dances for him but becomes angry when he insists that he must return to barracks. In his “Flower Song,” José shows Carmen the flower she threw at him, telling her that he kept it and thought of her when he was in jail. Still, he will not desert the army, and Carmen reviles him. Zuniga bursts in on them, provoking José to insubordination. The smugglers take Zuniga captive, and José now finds himself an outlaw with them.
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In a mountain hideaway, the smugglers boast of the dangerous life they lead. Carmen argues with José and then joins the other gypsies, who are reading fortunes. Frasquita and Mercédès find wealth and lovers in their cards, but Carmen finds only death in hers. The three women go off to distract the guards while the smugglers cross the border.
Micaëla comes in search of José, praying for protection in the aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante.” Startled by a gunshot, she hides. Escamillo, searching for Carmen, meets José instead. The two fight. As José is about to kill the toreador, Carmen intercedes. Micaëla is spotted and brought out from her hiding place. She pleads with José to return home. Carmen tells him to go, but he refuses to leave her. Micaëla finally reveals that José’s mother is dying. José agrees to go, but warns Carmen that she will never be free of him.
Outside a bullring in Seville, the excited crowd hails Escamillo’s arrival. The toreador and Carmen declare their love for one another. Escamillo and his fans enter the arena, and Carmen finds herself alone in the square with José. She tells him their love is over. José begs her to come away with him, and Carmen, defiant, tells him that she loves Escamillo. She throws at José the ring he gave her, and José stabs her to death.
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