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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Recordings Review: The Roar of the Flowers

Leonard Bernstein's very weird 1973 Carmen.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Leonard Bernstein (left) and Marilyn Horne (right) flank the stage director in rehearsals for Carmen.
Photo by F. Fred Sher © 1972 The Metropolitan Opera Archives. 
Despite having a long catalogue, Leonard Bernstein did not record that many operas. One of the more interesting ones is a 1973 recording of Carmen made by the maestro and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. It is not the best recording of George Bizet's opera but it is certainly interesting, capturing the energy of this seminal work. The recording is studio-bound, based on a series of six performances led by the maestro at the Met in October of 1972.

First, Bernstein's interpretation. The first act starts with the legendary conductor's brand of willfulness, but moves progressively toward what Bizet wrote down in the score. He takes the Act I Prelude very slowly indeed, establishing a kind of stately normalcy before the characters are let loose. Things proceed at tempo for the first act although the Habañera and Seguadilla are given a slow caressing line.

That same effect is used in the Act II-opening dance, starting with a slow rhythm and roaring to its finish like a locomotive. Bernstein keeps the hammer down for the Quintet with the singers racing to catch him. However, he lets the singers (and the music) breathe in the third act which is all to the good. In Act IV, the processional march is at normal (Allegro) tempo when it comes back. The finale hurtles to its climax in thrilling, slam-bang fashion that makes one wonder if the Met installed seatbelts in the Family Circle.

The two leads are the best thing about this recording . Marylin Horne was a legendary Carmen for good reason, and she supplies the role with the deep-toned, chesty register that is not always found in the opera house. Her husky delivery of the two Act I arias are pure and seductive, and her rejection of Don José after the Flower Song comes across like a hard slap in the face. She is magnificent in the Card Song and the opera's bloody finale.

James McCracken gives one of the great performances as Don José, his own flaws as a singer amplifying the cracks that run beneath the soldier's personality. This is at its height in the Flower Song, that great and subtly shifting tenor aria which is the show's most challenging moment. Everything afterward is downhill from there, although his cries of anguish in Act IV show that he is a victim as well.

Micaëla and Escamillo are treated as lesser players. Adriana Malaponte is Micaëla, and the long notes given to her duet with Don José in Act I distort the melodic lines and make one thing (not fondly) of Tony and Maria. Bernstein also takes the "Toreador Song" at very slow tempo, forcing baritone Tom Krause to drag out some unlovely notes. Donald Gramm (the Zuñiga) might have been better casting. Ms. Malaponte and Mr. Krause are much better in the third act.

This set was actually made down at the Manhattan Center Ballroom, the Met's longtime recording space on W. 34th St. And while this Carmen was remastered and re-released two years ago by PentaTone, this review is based in the 1991 CD remastering on Deutsche Grammophon. This Carmen has a few idiosyncrasies, some of which put it just below the rank of the very finest recordings of this opera (Abbado, Beecham.) The Metropolitan Opera Chorus is absent, replaced by a local pick-up ensemble (the Thomas Pyle Chorus) fictionally billed as the "Manhattan Opera Chorus." Also, the use of spoken dialogue is valuable for purist listeners who really want to learn this work as Bizet knew it, but takes getting used to. 

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