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Monday, February 2, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Carmen

The Met revives Carmen with its original cast. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Elina Garança as Carmen.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.

This production of Carmen caused a sensation when it premiered in 2009. For this spring revival, Roberto Alagna and Elina Garança return as the ill-fated lovers whose mutual passion leads to death against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.

Carmen has it all: memorable tunes, a compelling plot and a score that sticks close to French classicism while drinking deeply of the rhythms and meters of its Spanish setting. George Bizet's last work (he died shortly after it premiered) is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, and rightfully so.

All the world moves through Bizet's version of Seville, from the marching flag-waving children in the first act to the fleet-footed bullfighter Escamillo. The score is packed end-to-end with familiar musical moments yet in the hands of a skilled conductor it comes to life and becomes more than a sum of its parts.

A revival of Carmen is a fairly common event at the Metropolitan Opera: it is one of the most popular operas in the world and a steady draw at the box office. However, this one is special. It features the singers who helped create this highly successful staging. In the pit: Louis Langrée whose work with the Mostly Mozart festival has helped revive that institution in recent years.

Carmen returns Feb. 6.

 Recording Recommendations:
(Ed. note: this is re-posted from a previous "buyer's guide" article on Superconductor. Hey, it's my blog.)

Carmen's elusive quality extends to the recording studio, where a number of all-star teams have gone in to make the ideal recording of Bizet's opera, only to come up woefully short.

The list of divas defeated by Carmen includes names like Jessye Norman, Maria Callas, and even Joan Sutherland (whose Micaëla was nothing to write home about.) Famous conductors have tried to record this opera, only to be put out of court by disastrous tenors, weird taste in singers, or simple perversity in the production booth. With that in mind, here's a quick guide to the survivors: the recordings of Carmen that are worth owning.

(There are only two!)
Chor et Orchestre de la Radiodiffusion de France, cond. Thomas Beecham. 
Carmen: Victoria de los Angeles
Don José: Nicolai Gedda
Micaëla: Janine Michaeu
Escamillo: Ernest Blanc

Sir Thomas Beecham shows his vast experience as an opera conductor in this perfectly paced performance. He opts for the Giraud recitatives (standard practice back when this recording was made.) Their presence lends the recording a flowing, dramatic quality.

Victoria De los Angeles is superb, sensual and deeply human in the title role. Gedda, always at home in French repertory, is at his finest in this early recording. Micaëla and Escamillo are not star singers, but both understand the part thoroughly and sing in idiomatic French.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Claudio Abbado
Carmen: Teresa Berganza
Don José: Placído Domingo
Micaëla: Ileana Cotrubas
Escamillo: Sherrill Milnes

This studio recording was made following the 1977 Edinburgh Festival. The late Claudio Abbado and the LSO play like an orchestra shot out of a cannon, with a rapid Prologue and quick pacing throughout the opera. The spoken dialogue is used throughout, adding to the theatrical feel.

Placído Domingo is in the prime of his voice. So is Milnes, as the swaggering bullfighter. Teresa Berganza has a smaller voice than most Carmens, but the force and intelligence behind her performance bring depth to the character. Ileana Cotrubas might be the best Micaëla on disc.
Tickets for Carmen are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.
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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.