Under the baking Spanish sun, passions are simmering and love trickles away like sand between the fingers, turning the dust of Seville blood-red: Headstrong Carmen lives only for the pleasures of the day; she believes that her love should be as free as a bird on the wing. For the soldier Don José, his yearning for the seductive siren becomes his downfall when the virile bullfighter Escamillo disturbs their already crumbling relationship. Whilst Carmen has already turned her attentions to the charismatic bullfighter, José desperately tries to keep alive a love that has already died. In the end, it is not just the bull that receives the final deathblow in the arena. In »Carmen«, Bizet created more than just a new type of opera, integrating entertainment with serious ideas. Since Carmen has sung her Habanera, Escamillo has belted out his Couplets and the quadrille has taken over the arena, this work has been regarded as the ultimate exploration of the romanticized Spanish soul – combining a Mediterranean temperament with refreshing French finesse. Carmen herself, originally reviled as an amoral woman by the audience at the premiere, is regarded as the most complex and thrilling female characters in the world of opera. In her lust for life and freedom as well as her erotic charms, she embodies the fascinating world of sensuality and independence.
In front of the cigarette factory, Corporal Maralès and a group of soldiers are passing the time with boredom. Micaëla arrives, looking for her childhood sweetheart Don José, and becomes the victim of their suggestive jokes and advances. A crowd of children also distracts the soldiers by boisterously mixing with them during the changing of the guard. Right after a new group of soldiers, commanded by Lieutenant Zuniga and Corporal Don José, has mounted guard, the entrance of the cigarette factory opens and the female workers emerge for their break. Amongst them is Carmen, eagerly expected by the men, making them drool with her provocative habanera. She finally gets José’s attention by throwing a flower to him. Whilst still being mesmerised by the tempting woman, Micaëla surprises José with a message and a kiss from his mother. Reminiscing about his home, his thoughts are interrupted by agitated screaming. Carmen has started a fight inside the factory, she attacked and injured another woman with a knife. José is told to arrest her. Left alone with José, Carmen uses the moment to beguile him completely. Hoping to spend the night with her, José lets Carmen go and is arrested himself for letting her escape.
In Lillas Pastia’s tavern Zuniga and his soldiers are enjoying the dancing and singing of Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès. The arrival of Escamillo, a torero idolized by the women and admired by the men, causes a sensation. He is immediately attracted to Carmen. After the soldiers have left, the smugglers and their leaders Dancaïre and Remendado appear. They try to convince the women to help them with their latest scheme, but Carmen refuses to go with them. She waits for José, who has been released from jail earlier that day. Carmen dances just for him, but she is interrupted by the sounding of the last post. Carmen does not understand why José wants to leave once. Meanwhile Zuniga returns to the tavern, hoping to find Carmen alone. After recognising José and attacking him, he is restrained by the smugglers. José now has no choice but to join them.
Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès return to the smugglers camp with Dancaïre and Remendado, where José is already waiting for them. Carmen, who has grown tired of José, rejects him rudely despite his threats. Frasquita and Mercédès try to cheer her up by reading their fortune in the cards. The cards predict a happy future with love and wealth for booth of her friends; whereas for Carmen, the cards are only foretelling her own and José’s death. Reconciling to her fate, Carmen accepts the prediction and goes on with her next task: to distract three customs officers. A little later Micaëla, who followed José, encourages herself and enters the camp. She goes into hiding when she hears Escamillo arrive. After being welcomed by José, he declares his infatuation with Carmen. A fight breaks out and is stopped by Carmen and the smugglers. As Escamillo leaves, he invites everyone to his next bullfight in Seville. Micaëla is discovered and begs José to come with her to visit his dying mother for one last time. Carmen also insists that he should leave her. He reluctantly agrees to leave with Micaëla.
The whole Seville watches as the cuadrillas enter the arena on a parade. Escamillo, being the last torero to pass by, is cheered enthusiastically by the crowd. Frasquita and Mercédès spot José in crowd and warn Carmen. But Carmen does not want to escape her own and José’s fate. During the bullfight they meet one last time. He begs her to come with him, but she refuses staunchly. In the same moment as Escamillo triumphs over the bull, José kills Carmen.