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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

A Certain Dark-Eyed Beauty of Romany Extraction

My long relationship with Bizet's Carmen.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
My Carmen collection: (clockwise from upper left: Victoria de Los Angeles (not pictured), Marilyn Horne,
Agnes Baltsa, Christa Ludwig, Teresa Berganza, Tatiana Troyanos (not pictured), Jennifer Larmore.)
Photo by the author, screen cap taken from my iTunes.
Q: "What do you call two guys driving to the opera house?"
A: "Carmen."- -Mauri E. Pelkonen
I first met her when I was nine (maybe ten) years old, in my first year of going to the New York City Opera with my parents. A dusky, dark-haired bohémienne vixen with a rich mezzo-soprano voice (it was either Judith Forst or Susanne Marsee) that seductively sang in French, a language I knew little of. And yet, for that prepubescent kid sitting in the New York State Theater with his Mom and Dad (at his fourth opera!) Carmen was already something special. The show mixed spectacle, comedy and tragedy in a dizzying brew, laughing in the orchestra even as its characters hurtled toward disaster in the fourth act. And thanks to Dad's record collection, I already knew some of the music.

There are a lot of complete recordings of Carmen in the catalogue. Some are excellent, others of middling or flawed quality. Today, we're going to look at the ones I've listened to in chronological order--that is chronological according to how and when I encountered each one of them. We're going to start with the first one I owned and like some sort of opera criticism equivalent of The Tales of Hoffmann, try to figure out some sort of truth about this most brilliant of operas.

My first Carmen came in an orange box. This was a 1983 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, right around the time the Austrian conductor had crossed from ordinary villainy into cartoon super villainy with the advent of digital recording. Agnes Baltsa, who sang the role at the Met in the 1980s, is a whip-smart, wicked Carmen. José Carreras, caught very late in his career but before his bout with cancer, is an effective Jose. Despite some oddities (Katia Ricciarelli is seriously miscast as Micaëla, the use of actors for the spoken French dialogue is really distracting and the cigarette factory bell sounds like a Nibelung anvil--it's played in that rhythm!) I held onto this for a few years. Then I traded  it in and replaced it with...

...the classic 1959 recording with Victoria de Los Angeles and Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Orchestre National de France. The singing on this was much better than the Karajan, especially in the two leads. Nicolai Gedda is a damn near perfect Don Jose and Victoria de Los Angeles a warm and melodies Carmen. The flaw? This recording uses the recitatives that were added to the opera following the composer's death. Now, this may make for a better flow of music but it was not what Bizet intended. However, I held on to this recording and still own my copy in its nice EMI Great Recordings of the 20th century mastering.

Eventually it was joined by the recording that remains my favorite. Made in 1977, this Carmen is also on DG, but with a much more sympathetic conductor, Claudio Abbado leading the London Symphony Orchestra with one foot firmly on the accelerator. Spoken dialogue is used. Teresa Berganza is pretty much an ideal Carmen, running the gamut from flirt to hellcat. Opposite her, Placido Domingo is an excellent Don José, bright in tone at the beginning and broken towards the end. Ilena Cotrubas and Sherrill Milnes round out the cast.

OK. So I had two Carmen recordings . Did I need any more? I had the recent Simon Rattle set for a time: fast tempos and an unmemorable experience except for Jonas Kaufmann as Don José. I also acquired one a few years ago from my partner's grandfather, a Leonard Bernstein recording with Marilyn Horne. Listing to that (and writing about it) triggered this article. Prowling on, I purchased the complete sets by Seiji Ozawa, Giuseppe Sinopoli and Sir Georg Solti, and a new, used copy of the aforementioned 1983 Karajan. I spent less than $25, including shipping. These have proved interesting listens and my thoughts on each are below:

  • The 1988 Ozawa recording (Philips, now Decca) has the best Carmen, with Jessye Norman. She is sensuous (and more importantly not motherly) in the role. Opposite her: a very good Jose and Escamillo in Neil Shicoff and Simon Estes. However he has the wrong ideas about tempo and the results are wayward.

  • Next, the Solti, made in 1976 with the London Philharmonic, just one year before the above-mentioned Abbado recording. Tatiana Troyanos  is good in the title role though not quite as voluptuous. This set features Domingo in the other of those two recordings of the role he made in the late '70s. Solti makes some stern decisions about tempo and tone. 

  • Finally, the Sinopoli recording which came out on Teldec (now WBC) in 1996. Jennifer Larmore is the weakest of the singing Carmens (her accent is awful and she swallows words) and Thomas Moser is an bizarre choice for José. Angela Gheorghiu is in good early form as Micaëla. Samuel Ramey is a wonderful Escamillo but recorded the role too late in his career. Sinopoli's conducting is typical for him, beautiful, scholarly and occasionally spectacular.

We're not done yet. The other morning, I was listening to the Ozawa recording when my iTunes popped up with Hermann Prey singing the "Toreador Song" on a disc I have of opera arias. I explored further and spent ein Morgen listening to the 1961 recording of the opera sung entirely in German. The Deutsches Opera Berlin sounds steely and determined under the workmanlike leadership of Horst Stein and the Act I Prelude sounds like the invasion of Paris. But the cast, (Christa Ludwig, Herr Prey and Rudolf Schock) are simply incandescent. The violence of the finale sounds absolutely apocalyptic especially as this excellent cast is singing in German. It just goes to show: the magic of Bizet's last opera is powerful in any language.

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