José killed a man over a game of cards and fled south to join the army. His mother has sent Micaëla, his ex-girlfriend, to deliver a letter of forgiveness.
Soldiers parade in the square. Micaëla arrives, looking for José. Moralès tells her that José is on the next watch. He tries to persuade her to wait with them, but Micaëla decides to return later. A crowd of streetchildren appears, followed by the relief guard headed by Zuniga.
The square fills up with soldiers and women from the factory. Carmen attracts the most attention. Before returning to the factory, she throws a flower to José, which he picks up when everyone else has dispersed.
Micaëla returns with greetings from José's mother. Suddenly there is uproar in the factory and a crowd of women rushes out. They accuse Carmen of drawing a knife during a fight with another girl. Carmen refuses to answer Zuniga’s questions and he decides to send her to prison. While Zuniga is writing out the warrant, Carmen seduces José, who lets her escape. Act II At Lillas Pastias, two months later
Carmen and her friends, Frasquita and Mercédès, are entertaining Zuniga and Moralès. A crowd of soldiers arrives with the celebrated bullfighter Escamillo. He is instantly attracted to Carmen.
Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès are left alone with Dancairo and Remendado, who have a plan for which they need the girls’ help. Frasquita and Mercédès are ready, but Carmen says she cannot join them because she has fallen in love with José and is expecting him.
José’s voice is heard in the distance. He declares his love for Carmen, who dances for him. When the roll-call sounds from the barracks, José is torn between his military duty and his feelings for Carmen. At the moment José decides to leave, Zuniga returns. José is fiercely jealous and starts a fight with his superior officer. Carmen’s associates return and deal with Zuniga. José realizes that his army career is over and he now has no choice but to join them.
Interval Act III Several months later
Black-market smugglers come by night to the border. Carmen’s and José’s love affair has run its course: she has grown tired of him and he, though still obsessed with her, is tense and unpredictable. Frasquita and Mercédès hope to read their fortunes in a pack of cards; when Carmen cuts the cards, they foretell only her death.
Micaëla arrives the now deserted encampment, seeking José. She hides as José and Escamillo enter. Escamillo tells about a woman he has met, called Carmen. Filled with jealousy José challenges Escamillo to fight. Carmen and the smugglers return and stop them, and Escamillo invites the whole party to his next bullfight.
Micaëla is discovered. She begs José to return to his dying mother. Act IV Outside the bullring
A crowd has gathered for Escamillo’s bullfight. The toreros enter to enthusiastic acclaim; Carmen is with Escamillo. After Escamillo has entered the arena, Carmen meets José, and he kills her.