Bizet’s Carmen entered Spain’s cultural consciousness when it was first staged in Madrid in the 1887–8 season. A public battle for the performance rights in the autumn of 1887 led to competing productions at major theatres: the first in a new Spanish translation at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, and the second in the fully-sung Italian version at the Teatro Real. This article explores the Spanish encounter with Carmen during this season, from the political machinations of the lawsuit, to the opening nights and the extended critical debates that greeted the two premières. The Spanish adaptation is compared with the original French version and mapped against the native musico-theatrical tradition of the zarzuela, which had long purveyed constructions of ‘Spanishness’ for local consumption. Contemporary debates about national identity and its theatrical and musical representations underscore the varied critical responses to Carmen, which was embraced by Madrid opera audiences.