Commander Moralès is at the square with the corps of guards. Micaëla, a simple village girl, approaches and asks Moralès for a commander named Don José. Moralès replies that he will arrive shortly for the change of the guard, but Micaëla prefers to leave and return later. Trumpets blaring from the wings announce the arrival of the change of the guard. Followed by a group of children, the soldiers, under the command of Don José, reach the guard post to relieve Commander Moralès’ detachment. Zuniga, a new lieutenant, asks Don José about the cigarette girls who work in the nearby tobacco factory. Don José replies that they are beautiful and of dubious
reputation, but feels no interest in them because he is in love with the young Micaëla. The siren of the tabacco factory sounds, marking a break from work. The last one to appear is Carmen, a seductive gypsy beauty who flirts with all the young men she encounters on her way. Don José is the only one who seems to pay her no attention. While Carmen sings a habanera, all the men try to attract her attention, but she has her eyes set on the indifferent Don José and defiantly tosses him a flower before entering the factory. Micaëla returns to the guard post and gives Don José a letter from his mother recommending that he marries the girl. A commotion inside
the factory brings Don José out of his reverie: a group of workers comment among the shouting that Carmen is fighting ferociously with another cigarette girl and has slashed her face with a knife. Zuniga sends Don José and several soldiers into the factory to arrest the rowdy girls. Faced with the overwhelming evidence accusing her, Carmen is sent to jail in the custody of Don José. On the way, quickly caught up by the seductive bewitchment of the gypsy girl and her promises of love, Don José frees Carmen; she pretends to hit him and makes her escape.
The tavern of Lillas Pastia. Carmen and her girlfriends, Frasquita and Mercédès, are dining with Lieutenant Zuniga and other officers while a gypsy group plays the guitar and dances. Carmen and her girlfriends soon join the dancing and this inspires the soldiers to prolong the fun by inviting them to the theatre. Carmen refuses the invitation because she wants to wait for Don José who, after being demoted and under arrest for a month for letting her escape, has just been freed. A song and far-away cheers precede the appearance of Escamillo, a famous bullfighter who has just triumphed and who is immediately captivated by Carmen’s beauty. Having declared his
love to the gypsy girl, he departs in the company of the officers just before Dancaïre and Remendado, two local smugglers, enter the tavern and ask Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès to collaborate in a future undertaking. Carmen refuses because she says she is in love with Don José, but on the insistence of her companions, she agrees to convince Don José to desert and join the smugglers. When Don José reaches to tavern, he feels offended by Carmen’s proposition and refuses her, but the return of Lieutenant Zuniga and his brutal confrontation with Don José over Carmen’s favours changes the course of events: the smugglers, taking Don José’s side, disarm
Zuniga and leave him in the custody of the gypsies. Don José, having rebelled against a superior, has no choice but to join them and depart to the mountains.
While the smugglers prepare to deliver their goods, Carmen, who has already become tired of Don José’s jealous love, reads the cards with Frasquita and Mercédès in order to see the future; for Carmen the only prediction is death. Led by Dancaïre, they all leave the scene while Don José remains behind on a large rock, guarding the smugglers hideaway. From the darkness, Micaëla appears, searching for Don José. The sound of a shot causes her to hide. Don José has fired at an approaching intruder who turns out to be Escamillo. The bullfighter, uninjured and unaware of the identity of the voice speaking to him, tells Don José he has come to look for Carmen because she is no longer in love with her former sweetheart, a defector. Jealousy takes possession of Don José and he challenges Escamillo to a duel to the death with knives. Only the return of the smugglers, who arrive just in time to separate the rivals, avoids a tragedy. Finally, Escamillo leaves. Dancaïre then discovers Micaëla, who informs Don José that his mother is on her deathbed and wishes to say farewell to her son before she dies. Don José leaves with Micaëla, warning Carmen in a threatening tone that he will be back to get her. Carmen ignores his warning and now thinks only of Escamillo.
A square in front of the old bullring. A great tumult precedes the bullfight: a horde of vendors offers their wares to the crowd awaiting the arrival of the bullfighters. The team of assistants soon arrives and after them, acclaimed by the crowd, Escamillo and Carmen. When the bullfighter enters the ring, Frasquita and Mércèdes approach Carmen and warn her that they have seen Don José in the crowd. Carmen says she is not afraid of him and calmly awaits his arrival. Shortly afterward, as she attempts to enter the bullring, Don José blocks her path and tries to convince her to return to him. In spite of all his efforts, Carmen refuses to accompany him and confesses that she now loves Escamillo. The cheers from inside the bullring signalling the bullfighter’s triumph quickly put Don José’s nerves on edge. Carmen,
encouraged by Escamillo’s success, throws the ring given to her by Don José in his face. Don José, blind with rage, fatally stabs Carmen. As the crowd leaves the bullring, Don José, crushed and defeated, falls to his knees next to Carmen’s body.