Act I: A plaza in Seville
Some soldiers pass the time. A country girl, Micaëla, approaches looking for Don José, a corporal. The soldiers try to get her to wait with them. She says she will return when José is on duty.
José arrives with the changing of the guard. At noon, women emerge from a cigarette factory. The last out is the gypsy Carmen, who teases the men with the possibility of her love. She throws a flower at José, who has ignored her, and reenters the factory with the other women.
Micaëla delivers a letter and a kiss from José’s mother. After she leaves, José is persuaded by the letter to marry Micaëla. Suddenly, there is a commotion: Carmen and another worker have been fighting. Captain Zuniga sends José to arrest Carmen, who refuses to speak. Zuniga leaves José in charge while he prepares to have her jailed. Carmen persuades José to allow her to escape. He unties her, and Carmen pushes him over and escapes through the crowd. José is arrested.
Act II: Lillas Pastia’s inn, one month later
Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès entertain the customers. Zuniga tells Carmen that José is out of jail. He suggests that she could do better than him, but she is currently in love and cannot think of another.
A crowd is heard cheering Escamillo, a toreador. He sings a song of bravery in the corrida and flirts with Carmen, but she indicates that she is taken at the moment. As he leaves, Escamillo invites Carmen and her friends to come see him in the ring. When the last customer has left, Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado try to persuade the women to join them on a smuggling expedition. Frasquita and Mercédès agree, but Carmen is not interested. José’s voice is heard, and the friends leave Carmen alone.
Carmen greets José warmly. He interrupts her when he hears the summons to quarters. Carmen is outraged and tells him not to come back. He pulls the remains of her flower from his jacket and tells her that only the flower’s fragrance and the anticipation of her love made his jail term bearable. He swears he loves her. In that case, she says, he should desert and come with her to freedom. José refuses and is about to leave when Zuniga returns and derides Carmen’s choice of men. José attacks Zuniga. Only the return of the smugglers prevents bloodshed. José, now effectively a deserter, joins Carmen and the smugglers.
Act III: The smugglers’ hideout in the mountains
The smugglers camp before making a night border crossing. José’s homesickness and jealousy have stifled Carmen’s love. When Carmen and her friends read their fortunes, Mercédès sees true love, Frasquita sees riches, but Carmen can see only death—for herself and for José. As the smugglers leave, they post José as lookout over the campsite.
Micaëla arrives and prays for courage. A gunshot frightens her into hiding. Escamillo arrives and tells José that he has come to find Carmen. Infuriated, José challenges Escamillo to a duel. Once again, the smugglers’ arrival ends a fight. As Escamillo leaves, he invites all those who love him to come see him in the ring in Seville.
Micaëla is discovered and tells José she was sent to bring him home because his mother is dying. José leaves with Micaëla.
Act IV: Outside the bullring in Seville
A festive crowd gathers. Carmen arrives on Escamillo’s arm, and they pledge their love. After Escamillo enters the enclosure, Frasquita and Mercédès warn Carmen that José is nearby. Carmen refuses to hide from him.
José appears and reproaches Carmen. She replies that she has only ever been faithful to herself. As José’s desperation becomes pathetic, Carmen taunts him with her love for Escamillo and finally flings away a ring José had given her. She gives him an ultimatum: kill her or let her go. Pushed beyond endurance, José stabs her and cries out, horrified at what he has done.