ACT I – A square outside of a tobacco factory in 1820s Seville, Spain
A group of soldiers and their corporal, Morales, reflect on their easygoing lives. Micaëla (Me-ky-ayla) enters the square and asks Morales if he has seen Don José (Joe-say). The corporal tells her that José will arrive when the new guard relieves the old, and the soldiers offer to entertain her in the guardhouse in the meantime. She declines, and the soldiers return to watching passers-by. Street urchins imitate the new guard, including José and his lieutenant, Zuniga, as they enter.
A bell signals a break for the women working in the tobacco factory. They flood the square to enjoy their cigarettes. Carmen emerges from the crowd, and young men demand to know when the sensuous gypsy goddess will favor one of them with her love. She tells them that love is a rebellious bird that they will never tame, lawless and free, and if you snare it, it flies away. José catches her eye, and she teasingly throws him a flower.
Micaëla finds José, bringing with her a letter from his mother, who forgives his erring ways and encourages him to return to the love of his youth, Micaëla. Shouts from within the factory interrupt their reverie of life together. Carmen has slashed another worker’s face with a knife. Zuniga demands that Carmen explain herself, but she defies him. He orders José to arrest the insolent girl. José has no choice but to take her forcefully to prison. On the way, she informs him to the contrary: he is under her power, charmed by the flower she gave him, and he will bow to her every whim. She promises to meet José at Lillas Pastia’s tavern if he helps her escape. Intoxicated by the brazen creature, he is powerless to refuse.
Act II – Lillas Pastia’s Tavern two months later
Carmen and her friends entertain officers and smugglers with fiery gypsy songs and dances in the tavern. Escamillo, a bullfighter, swaggers in and shares a drink with his admirers. In response to a lusty chorus of adulation, he sings the famous toreador song. He and Zuniga have their eyes on Carmen, and both declare their love. Though flattered, she refuses their advances. Zuniga promises to return later that evening, hoping she will have changed her mind. As the tavern clears out, two smugglers enter and ask Carmen and her companions Frasquita and Mercédès to help them with a job that night. They need women to carry it off. She refuses because José, imprisoned for aiding her escape, was just released and could show up at any minute. Just as José arrives, the call sounds from the barracks, and he insists that he has to leave. Upset, Carmen protests that if he really loved her, he would join her and the smugglers that night in the mountains. With impeccable timing, Zuniga arrives to seduce Carmen. In a fit of jealousy, José attacks his lieutenant. The smugglers drag Zuniga away, and José has little choice but to go with them.
Act III, Scene One – The smugglers’ hideout
At the hideout in a wild mountain pass, José and Carmen fight again. She tells him to leave and then joins Frasquita and Mercédès as they turn cards to tell their fortunes. Frasquita and Mercédès foresee rich and gallant lovers, but Carmen’s cards spell death for her and for José.Micaëla, with the help of a guide, arrives at the hideout, hoping to save José. Just when she sees him, he fires on Escamillo, who is also approaching the camp. The bullfighter is looking for Carmen, having heard that she is dissatisfied with her latest lover. Enraged, José nearly kills the bullfighter in a knife fight, which Carmen and the smugglers luckily interrupt. Unfazed, Escamillo invites Carmen and the others to his next bullfight in Seville and takes his leave. Micaëla confronts José, tells him that his mother is on her deathbed, and begs him to come with her. He agrees, but only after vowing to Carmen that he will return.
Scene Two – Seville
The day of the bullfight has arrived, and a resplendent Carmen approaches the stadium on Escamillo’s arm. Haggard and desperate, José emerges from the crowd and declares his undying love to Carmen. He implores her to forget the past and start a new life with him. She laughs scornfully at him, hurling the ring he once gave her into the dirt. She will never give in: she was born free and free she will die. In a passionate rage, José plunges his dagger into Carmen’s heart and collapses in horror upon his beloved, as cheers for the triumphant bullfighter rise from the stadium.