Séville, Spain, 1936 - at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War
Act I - A square in Seville, in between the guard-house and the cigarette factory.
It is a hot day and a group of soldiers led by Captain Zuniga, are guarding the guard-house. Micaëla, a shy young woman, arrives looking for Don José, a corporal in the regiment. Zuniga and the soldiers take a fancy to Micaëla and try to persuade her to stay but she leaves. Don José enters for the changing of the guard just before Carmen arrives, the beautiful and heartless Gypsy-girl, on a break from working in the tobacco factory. The soldiers flirt with Carmen, all except Don José. Seeing a challenge, Carmen sets her eyes on him and sings the famous Habanera, « Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame » and she throws a flower at Don José. Against his will, he is flattered by Carmen’s passionate advances, and he hides the flower in his uniform. Micaëla, his village sweetheart, returns with a message from Don José’s mother, who begs him to marry Micaela. As he reads the letter to himself, Micaela leaves filled with hope for a life with Don José. A sudden disturbance interrupts the calm. It is Carmen, who has started a fight with one of the other tobacco workers. Zuniga questions Carmen but her only answer is to mock him with « Tra-la-la ». Zuniga orders Don José to arrest her and take her to jail. Alone with Don José, Carmen seduces him, leaving Don José helplessly taken in by her seduction and agrees to a plan that will free her. Don José allows her to escape. Zuniga is unimpressed with his corporal and punishes him with imprisonment.
As the guests go off to dance, Violetta stays behind, suffering a fainting spell. Alfredo returns to her, expressing both his concern and love. She dismisses Alfredo’s advances but invites him to come back when the camellia she gives him has faded. Finally alone, Violetta reflects on Alfredo’s love compared to her current life of pleasure.
Act II - The tavern Lillas Pastias
A month later, Carmen and her friends, Mercedes and Frasquita, have some fun passing the time singing and dancing for Zuniga and two of his soldiers. The famous toreador Escamillo is in town, and he joins them in the tavern. He sings a toreador song about his exploits and falls in love with Carmen. However, Carmen plays hard to get and refuses his advances. The soldiers and Escamillo leave as the smugglers Dancaïro and Remendado arrive to inform Carmen, Mercedes and Frasquita, that their help is needed that same night to deal with some recent swag. Carmen, who is awaiting Don José who is recently released from prison, says she cannot go because she is in love. The others do not believe her, but then they hear Don José’s voice outside. They decide to leave Carmen and Don José alone. He is jealous when she tells him that she has danced for the soldiers, so she dances for Don José and he tells her how much he loves her. However, a trumpet is heard sounding the retreat for all soldiers to return to the barracks. Don José says he must leave due to his loyalty to his regiment. Carmen is astonished by this and mocks his military loyalty with growing fury and accuses him of not loving her. Don José attempts to reassure her of his love by producing the flower she threw at him. That is not good enough for Carmen. She tells him that if he really loved her he would leave the army and join her and the group of smugglers. Don José cannot bring himself to desert his regiment but as he is about to leave, Zuniga returns for some more Carmen time. Zuniga orders Don José to leave but jealously gets the better of Don José. He disobeys the order and draws his weapon on his superior officer. Before their fight starts, the smugglers return and disarm Zuniga, leaving Don José with no choice but to desert the army and join the smugglers.
Act III - A pass on the mountains
It is night and the smugglers have gathered ready to deliver their ill-gotten gains. Don José is there but regrets his new way of life, especially as Carmen has already tired of him. Mercedes and Frasquita pass the time by reading their fortunes in cards. Carmen joins them to consult the cards, but the cards tell her only that death is her future. The smugglers start to move on as they have to dispose of their merchandise. Don José stays back, keeping watch. Micaëla has discovered the whereabouts of the smugglers, and is in search of Don José. She wishes to take him away from his new life, and away from Carmen. She hides and waits for Don José. Escamillo arrives in search of Carmen and is discovered by Don José. Escamillo tells Don José that he is there to see Carmen, claiming that they are both in love. An even more jealous Don José challenges Escamillo to a duel with knives. They fight but the fight is interrupted by the return of the smugglers. Escamillo leaves, bidding farewell to Don José and inviting everyone to his bullfight the next day. Micaëla who is found hiding, comes forward to tell Don José that his mother is dying. Carmen is not impressed and tells Don José to go back with his village girl to his mother. He swears to Carmen that he will return and as he rushes off with Micaëla, Escamillo’s voice is heard singing his toreador song in the distance.
Act IV - another square in Seville, next to the bullfighting ring.
A radiant Escamillo arrives with Carmen on his arm. They declare their love for each other before Escamillo heads to his bull fight. Mercedes and Frasquita warn Carmen to leave as Don José is lying in wait for her. Carmen refuses the warning saying she is not afraid. Don José begs and pleads with Carmen to love him again, imploring her to start a new life with him. She resists all his attempts, and throws the ring he gave her at his feet, telling him that it is all over between them. Carmen tries to go inside the bullring to watch her new lover. Don José blocks her way. She tells him she will never love him again, as she now loves Escamillo. As the crowd cheer the victorious toreador, Don José mad with jealousy, stabs Carmen to death.