Claudio Abbado, cond; Stuart Harling (
); Leona Mitchell (
); Plácido Domingo (
); Teresa Berganza (
); Nan Christie (
); Alicia Nafé (
); Tom Krause (
); Gordon Sandison (
); Edinburgh Festival Ch; London S O
PREMIERE OPERA 1204-2, available from premiereopera.com (2 CDs: 148:20)
may be the most-recorded opera of all time, although
has always given it a run for the money—but
came first, as far back as 1908 in a German-language version featuring Emmy Destinn and Karl Jörn. (Sorry, but I don’t want to hear Carmen sing “Ja, die Liebe hat bunte Flugel,” even if her name
Emmy Destinn.) But this only takes the studio recordings into consideration; it doesn’t include the live broadcasts dating back at least to Rose Bampton in 1935. Premiere Opera itself sells—and I am not exaggerating—118 versions, and those are just the ones on CD, ranging from the 1908 recording to a 2009 live performance. I’m guessing there will be 15 to 20 more on their website by the time you go there to see if you want to buy this one.
This version is recommendable because it really
from start to finish. So many
recordings don’t, despite such stellar names in the casts as Georges Thill, Solange Michel, Victoria de los Angeles, Nicolai Gedda, Maria Callas, or Jon Vickers (although I will never part with the Vickers
despite my dislike of Grace Bumbry’s interpretation of the title role, because of his performance and that of Mirella Freni as Micaëla). I’ve been through a lot of
recordings and eventually got rid of them all—not only the ones mentioned above but also Julia Migenes-Johnson with Domingo (on both CD and VHS), Troyanos and Domingo, Gheorghiu and Alagna, Stevens-Peerce, etc. None of them seemed to capture the real spirit of the opera.
So what makes this one so special? After all, isn’t there a commercial version out there with virtually the same cast (except Ileana Cotrubaş, Yvonne Kenny, and Sherrill Milnes as Frasquita, Micaëla and Escamillo) available on DG 402902? Yes, there certainly is. So why do I prefer this live version? For several reasons, beginning with Berganza’s Carmen. Her voice may be more “settled” on the DG issue, but it’s not nearly as lively an interpretation. On this live performance, she combines liveliness and sensuality in a way that channels the ghost of Conchita Supervía, my favorite Carmen of all time (but alas, one who didn’t record the complete opera). I’ve never heard a Habanera like this one: light of voice, almost flippant, like a woman who’s sexy and knows it and doesn’t need to flaunt it. Reviewing the commercial recording in
Alan Blyth said that “Berganza declared her aim of rescuing the role from bad traditions and from its insults to Spanish womanhood . . . Nothing is exaggerated yet nothing is left out in this sensuous yet never overtly sensual portrayal, bewitchingly sung.” If the studio recording is bewitchingly sung, you need to hear this live performance.
But there are other reasons. Domingo is in fresher voice, in fact sounding so high and lyric in the positioning of his voice that you’d almost swear it was the Domingo of 1967 instead of 1977, before his studies with Nicola Palumbo forced the voice into an almost inflexible “set” position that produced a consistent but thicker sound. As much as I admire Cotrubaş as a singing actress, Leona Mitchell is twice the vocalist she is. (In the initial run of these Edinburgh performances, Freni was in the cast, and to me her inclusion would have been ideal—she sang Micaëla’s famous aria even more dramatically—but Mitchell is awfully good nonetheless.) And Milnes, though a fine baritone and still in excellent voice in 1977, simply didn’t have the low range to negotiate Escamillo’s music. The late critic Tom Villella used to tell me, “Escamillo is a trap for baritones . . . it lies too low for most of them. You almost need to be a bass-baritone like Lawrence Tibbett in order to sing it properly.” Krause is that kind of singer.
And then there are the little niceties of a live performance that just never seem to translate into the recording studio: the very Gallic-sounding, almost guttural delivery of the spoken dialogue, especially in Lillas Pastia’s hideout in the mountains, that makes it sound like one of those French movies where everyone is always drinking red wine and smoking Gauloise cigarettes. Heck, even the kids’ chorus in the first act sounds like the little buggers are smoking Gauloises and drinking wine. That’s how French this performance sounds.
Abbado conducts the majority of the music—excepting those moments that need to be relaxed, like the Habanera, the “flower song” and the act III Entr’acte—with a light touch but mercurial tempos. His
fairly flies, bringing to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous description of the opera: “This music is wicked, refined, fatalistic, and yet it retains a popular appeal.” Alas, the only poor track on this entire recording is the act I Prelude, which seems to have been damaged during the taping process, but you can always download Abbado’s 1994 performance of the same music with the Berlin Philharmonic and replace it. I did.
In addition to sounding youthful and lyrical, Domingo also acts the role much better here than he did on any of his other three recordings, the live performance with Obraztsova and Carlos Kleiber, the Decca studio recording with Troyanos, or the studio/film performance with Migenes-Johnson conducted (far too slowly) by Maazel.
Lynn René Bayley