The brave soldier Don José falls for the beautiful and exotic Carmen, who works in Seville’s infamous cigarette factory. Seduced by Carmen, Don José puts at risk his rank of corporal, deserts from the army and joins a gang of smugglers. But Carmen’s craving for freedom and her thirst for life and love are too much for the soldier from northern Spain. Soon Carmen abandons him, amusing herself with the acclaimed toreador Escamillo. Then, while Escamillo kills an animal in the bullring, José kills the woman he loves. Georges Bizet’s »Carmen«, which premiered in 1875, is one of the most popular of all operas. This is due in no small part to Bizet’s brilliant score: Carmen’s »Habanera« or the Toreador Song have greatly influenced our notion of Spanish music. For the Semperoper, director Axel Köhler has created an austere staging of »Carmen«, in which the drudgery of the cigarette workers is contrasted with the colourful world of bullfighting.
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.