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Friday, February 29, 2008

Opera On Disc: Carmen vs. Carmen

Frame-grab of Teresa Berganza as Carmen.
George Bizet's Carmen is evergreen on the stage, an opera packed from end to end with memorable melodies and unforgettable dramatic moments. The electricity of a performance is difficult to replicate in the studio. Also, the use of spoken dialogue instead of recitative tends to confuse first-time listeners who may surprised to hear spoken French coming out of their living room stereo. That said, these are the two best Carmens in the catalogue.

Carmen
London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Claudio Abbado, (Deutsche Grammophon/DG Original 1978)


An Italian conductor, Spanish singers in the lead parts, an English orchestra and an American Escamillo add up to a cosmopolitan Carmen. Claudio Abbado's 1978 recording has plenty of red-blooded energy, which makes up for its lack of authentic French tone. From the first cymbal clashes to the tragic final scene, Abbado's conducting reeks of attitude and robustness, good qualities in a performance of this passionate opera. Teresa Berganza sings a lush, sensual performance, achieving genuine heat in her Act I solos and a full, rich characterization in the later acts. Her Don José is Placido Domingo, in his vocal prime. His tense, barely-in-control "Flower Song" is one of the tenor's best recorded moments, tender yet anguished.

Berganza and Domingo have terrific chemistry on this recording. The only thing that's better is the Act I scene between Domingo and Ileana Cotrubas as Micaëla--a heart-rending reminder of that failed relationship. Sherrill Milnes is a strutting Escamillo, singing the "Toreador" song with feline grace. The London Symphony Orchestra is in excellent form. This recording uses the authentic spoken French dialogue, as the composer intended. The only minus--some of the sound effects are overplayed and overwhelming.
(Note: In March of 2005, after a long absence from the label's US catalogue (I had to buy an import!), the Abbado/Bergana >Carmen was reissued as a 2-disc, mid-price DG Original.)

Carmen
Choeur et Ochestra National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise, cond. Sir Thomas Beecham, (EMI Classics, 1960)

Sir Thomas Beecham's recording has been the benchmark Carmen since it apeared in 1960. Its chief glory is the voluptuous singing of Victora de los Angeles. At this point in her career, de los Angeles had already recorded the definitive Bohème with Beecham at the controls. She undertook the role of the Spanish gypsy at the conductor's request, having never sung Carmen onstage. Her Carmen is a complex creature, playful and teasing in the Habañera, bewitching in the Séguedille. She is well matched with the great Nicolai Gedda, whose excellent command of French and cerebral approach to the character make him a fairly down-to-earth Don José. Of course, this makes the moment when he snaps and turns into a homicidal maniac all the more effective.

These two excellent leads are supplanted by a fine French cast, most notably Ernest Blanc (Escamillo) and Janine Micheau (Micaëla). Beecham leads his French forces in a performance that features the old-fashioned Giraud recitatives. This gives the performance an organic ebb and flow, highlighting the superb work of this quintessential British conductor . This Carmen never loses its momentum, or its sense of inexorable progress toward the final denouement.
(Note: This set is currently available, as a mid-price 3-disc box in EMI's Great Recordings of the 20th Century series.)
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.