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Friday, November 5, 2010

Surviving Carmen: The Buyer's Guide

Elina Garanca in Carmen.
Photo ©2010 Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera

Like its namesake, the opera Carmen is an elusive creature. This 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

This set is 51 years old, and still the benchmark.

Sir Thomas Beecham shows his vast experience as an opera conductor in this perfectly paced performance. He opts for the Giraud recitatives (which was 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

An Italianate Carmen from the jet age.

This studio recording was made following the 1977 Edinburgh Festival. 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--pure luxury casting.

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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.