A crowd of men stand outside the Royal Cigarette factory in Seville, nearby is a guardhouse and in the distance, on the banks of the river Guadalquivir, stands the historic Andalucian bullring….The blaring town band heralds the dawning of a new bullfight which can only end in death and blood.
The men are patiently waiting for the cigarette girls…who soon emerge smoking and singing of love being like the smoke of a
cigarette gently dissipating in the breeze. Carmen, a wild gypsy girl, taunts her many admirers, asking which one of them she will love today. She sings the famous Habanera (¨Love is a like a rebellious bird that no-one can tame….but if I choose to love you; beware!”). She sees a handsome young corporal watching her and brazenly throws a flower at him. The cigarette girls taunt Don José with the mocking refrains of Carmen's Habanera. They have seen her throw her flowers before. The factory bell sounds again, summoning the cigarette girls to return to their work. Don José's eyes remain fixed on the flower that Carmen has thrown at him.
Sounds of fighting and screaming break out inside the factory….Carmen has been involved in a ferocious fight with another girl and has stabbed her. Don José is given the job of subduing her. He ties her up and guards her before taking her to prison. The rest of the soldiers including Zuniga (José´s sergeant) disappear inside the barracks leaving the young corporal in charge of the gypsy. She complains that the rope is hurting her wrists and José loosens them. She then sings the infamous Seguidilla, seductively urging him to join her under the ramparts of the city in Lilias Pastia’s tavern where they will drink, dance and enjoy other pleasures: the pleasures of love. This is too much for the young corporal; he agrees to help her make an escape. She does and José is taken to prison.
Act II - The Tavern of Lilas Pastias
The girls are dancing wild Spanish dances; frenetic music is heard, they reach a climactic trance-like state. The tavern is a front for smuggling operations, which the soldiers can´t prove. Carmen is waiting for her new lover, Don José, who is to be let out of prison that day. Outside wild cheering can be heard.
Escamillo, Spain´s most famous bullfighter, returning triumphantly from the ring, has arrived at the tavern. He graciously accepts a drink from one of the girls and sings of the battle between man and beast in the ring. ( ``Behold the black eye of the bull is just like the wild love between man and woman´´). The excited crowd all join in the chorus of the Toreador Song. He clearly wants Carmen for himself, but she dismisses him saying she is waiting for another…yet she is still intrigued.
After turning down an invitation from Remendado and Dancairo to join them that night on a smuggling operation, she waits patiently in the tavern for the arrival of Don José. He is heard in the distance. Don José arrives as the smugglers slip into the shadows. He reveals that he has only been out of jail for two hours and has come straight to the tavern to find Carmen. She teases him, saying that Zuniga was just there and that she danced for him. "Are you jealous?" she chides. "Of course, I'm jealous!" he replies. "Good," she replies. “Now I'll dance for you”.
When bugles are heard in the distance, sounding the guards' retreat for the evening, Carmen artfully uses this added accompaniment to taunt Don José. He has also heard the call back to the barracks and tries to force her to stop. He is torn between his need to report for duty and his overwhelming desire to stay with her. She is wild with anger and he tries to calm her by singing the most beautiful aria in the Opera. (The Flower Song ¨The flower that you threw to me I still have, it kept me alive in prison knowing I would see you¨) Still Carmen is unmoved. (¨no you do not love me´´). At that point Zuniga returns and demands Don José leave the tavern which he refuses to do. A fight breaks out, Zuniga is beaten, but now it is too late for José, he is forced to flee and join the smugglers.
Act III - The Smugglers Hide-Out
José and Carmen are arguing. She has tired of him and would like him to leave. Mercédès and Frasquita are throwing the fortune cards. Mercédès , according to the cards, will marry a great leader and Frasquita a rich old man. Carmen´s cards tell only of death but she is well resigned to her eventual fate. Customs officers have been spotted and the girls leave to distract them. The camp is now deserted when Micaela, José ´s young girlfriend from his village, comes out of hiding. She has followed them so she can be near her José. She prays for courage and protection.
José, who has been standing guard, sees a movement in the shadows and fires. He nearly hits Escamillo who has come in search of a particular gypsy girl who he has fallen in love with. When José realizes that the gypsy girl is Carmen he challenges the bullfighter to a knife fight….he nearly kills Escamillo but is stopped by the returning smugglers. Escamillo thanks Carmen for saving his life and leaves with the promise of a future liaison. When the band prepares to leave Micaela is spotted and caught. She begs Don José to return home as his mother is desperately ill and wants to forgive him before she dies. He goes reluctantly but vows furiously to return soon.
Act IV - Outside the Bullring
The crowd is wild with excitement, the loudest cheers are reserved for Escamillo, who enters escorted by Carmen in a stunning dress. As they approach the bullring, Carmen and Escamillo pledge their love to one another in a short and sentimental duet. Carmen is warned by Frasquita and Mercédès that José has arrived and is hiding in the crowd. Carmen brushes aside their warnings, saying that she is not afraid. As the throng enters the bullring, she decides to wait boldly to confront her distraught ex-lover. Don José begs her to return to him, but she refuses saying their affair is over. To emphasise her point she throws the ring he gave her into his face. At this insult, José realizes that she no longer loves him and stabs her brutally to death. She dies to the sound of Escamillo victoriously dispatching a bull in the ring.