Your reaction to this will depend on your interest
in operatic performing history. If you don’t have a Carmen on
your shelves, then you will presumably want it sung in the original
French, preferably complete, in a manner approaching the French
style, and in modern sound. This 1957 mono recording catches the
voices well but gives the upper strings a papery brilliance and
the bass line is tubby. Orchestral climaxes are too backward to
have great impact. I wouldn’t let this put me off if I was getting
a great performance, but I am not so sure that I am.
Opera in the vernacular has a long and sometimes
distinguished history. The first ever Carmen on disc was actually
in German (1908, with Emmy Destinn). A proper French Carmen followed
in 1912 while Italian Carmens were made in 1920, 1931 and 1933
(the latter with Aureliano Pertile). Further German versions were
made in 1942 (under Böhm with Elisabeth Höngen in the
title role) and 1961 (with Christa Ludwig under Horst Stein).
The first English (or maybe American) Carmen seems to date from
1946, recorded at the Hollywood Bowl under Stokowski. A performance
in Russian was recorded in 1952.
In post-war Italy there were few non-Italian
operas in the repertoire at all; such as they were, they were
invariably sung in translation. Furthermore, they tended to be
sung as if they really were Italian operas, and a strong tradition
grew up of wrong-headed, verista, performances of Carmen,
Werther and Manon. But Italy has never had the equivalent of the
English National Opera in London or the Volksoper in Vienna where
everything is systematically done in the local language and I
am not aware of any major (or even minor) opera house in present-day
Italy which presents works in translation. The habit of singing
Massenet in the style of Puccini nevertheless remains.
Opera in English has always maintained its position,
though many feel that the English National Opera’s policy is now
outdated. Others clearly disagree since opera in English has undergone
something of a revival on disc recently, and native English speakers
wanting Carmen in this form will find an excellent one on Chandos.
I am not aware of recordings being made in any other country today
of operas in translation (but as they would not be intended for
export, this doesn’t necessarily mean there are none) and I think
it unlikely that any Italian opera lover would now wish to hear
non-Italian works in his own language; any interest aroused by
the present disc would regard the singers.
Certainly, admirers of Franco Corelli around
the world will be pleased to have this. As the booklet points
out, his Don José was something of a reference point in
the post-war scene. He sang the role for the first time at Spoleto
in 1951 and gave performances every year till 1962, thereafter
repeating it most years until his final run at the Arena di Verona
in 1975. He made two commercial recordings, the first under Karajan
in 1963 with Leontyne Price, Mirella Freni and Robert Merrill,
the second under Maazel in 1970 with Anna Moffo, Helen Donath
and Piero Cappuccilli. What the booklet doesn’t mention is that
it was not a performance that appealed much to Francophones, with
its poor French and hell-for-leather verismo style. Still,
the Karajan Carmen was a famous affair in its way, albeit not
quite Bizet’s way. The second set had, some thought, better French
and the original dialogue (spoken by actors) in place of the recitatives
(which are not Bizet’s own). A television version was made by
the RAI in 1956 under Nino Sanzogno with Belen Amperan as Carmen,
and Bongiovanni have put out two "unofficial" versions
(I have no information about the sound quality); a 1961 performance
from the Arena di Verona, sung in Italian with Simionato, Scotto
and Bastianini, is conducted by Molinari-Pradelli, while one of
his last performances, from Macerata in 1974, has Grace Bumbry
as Carmen and De Fabritiis as conductor. Those who like an Italianate
Don José might find some point in hearing Corelli sing
in his own language.
It certainly is impressive on its own terms,
a glorious flood of generous tone. There is also a tendency to
attack notes from below and a heavy recourse to portamento. But
there you are, if you don’t mind Bizet being treated like Mascagni
you’ll just bathe in it all, and the point of the disc is for
voice-fanciers rather than Bizet admirers.
So what of the others, little-known outside Italy?
Pia Tassinari was born in 1909 and was the wife of the tenor Ferruccio
Tagliavini. Originally a soprano, she turned to mezzo roles in
1952. She sang Carmen frequently and closed her career with the
role in America in 1962. She was noted for her powerful singing
of verismo roles and this is a smoulderingly passionate
Carmen from the start; reckless in her chesty tones and not always
perfect of intonation, it cannot be said she finds any great variety
of expression. It’s all hammer and tongs. I suggest that her recording
of the role of Rosa Mamai in Cilea’s L’Arlesiana, also on Warner
Fonit, is a better reminder of her art.
Gian Giacomo Guelfi did some good things, his
Scarpia on the Basile Tosca for instance, but barking away at
Escamillo is less of a good idea. Margherita Benetti, of whom
little seems to be known except that she cropped up on these Cetra
sets from time to time, has a solid voice, strongly projected,
but wearing in its unvaried over-insistence. Hardly right for
All this is rather emphasised by the fact that
Basile, unlike the singers, does realise that he is conducting
French music not Italian, producing a lean, classical reading
that could have been worth hearing with a different set of principals.
The orchestral preludes and interludes are perhaps the most enjoyable
parts of the disc. Any attempt to impose another style of singing
would probably have been vain and he just concentrates on holding
things together when the singers enter.
Not a disc for a general recommendation, then.
Corelli fans will want it, and so may opera lovers who fancy a
snapshot of how Carmen used to be performed in Italy.