Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875)
Carmen (1875)

Carmen - Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano)
Micaela - Mary Plazas (soprano)
Frasquita - Mary Hegarty (soprano)
Mercedes - Sally Harrison (soprano)
Don Jose - Julian Gavin (tenor)
Escamillo - Garry Magee (baritone)
Dancaire - Peter Wedd (tenor)
Remendado - Mark Le Brocq (tenor)
Zuniga - Nicholas Garrett (bass-baritone)
Morales - Toby Stafford Allen (baritone)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
New London Children's Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry
Recorded: 27-30 August, 2,3 September 2002, Watford Colosseum DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 3091(2) [2CDs: 75.20+79.59]

There is a tendency for conductors to take the confused textual history of 'Carmen' as a licence to play fast and loose with the make-up of the work. This has been very prevalent since Fritz Oeser's rather over-inclusive edition, which included much music that Bizet would probably rather have kept in the waste basket. The problem lies with Bizet's early death and the controversy surrounding the first performance. Bizet lived to see the vocal score published, but there has always been a contention that some of the changes he made were ones that had been forced upon him. Unfortunately, he also took advantage of the occasion to confirm a number of other tightening ups and improvements.

For this new Chandos recording, Richard Langham Smith has gone back to the original vocal score and the Opéra-Comique orchestral parts to produce a new edition. This is a welcome blast of fresh air after all the tinkering of the last 20 years or so. On these discs we hear a decent approximation to the last version of 'Carmen' sanctioned by Bizet before his death. The original vocal score was published in March 1875, almost concurrently with the first performance. It is the only published score that was supervised by Bizet (the full score was supervised by Guiraud after Bizet's death). In it, we may presume that Bizet was free to incorporate as many or as few as he wanted of the changes that were made during the rehearsal period. Regarding the changes during this initial rehearsal period, it is worth bearing two things in mind. First, Bizet was an inveterate reviser and the finales in particular went through quite a number of revisions. Secondly, the first performance played for 174 minutes (excluding intervals), and this was the shortened version. It is understandable that Bizet introduced cuts as a work lasting 3 hours is rather stretching the genre too far.

Sung in English, it is of course given with spoken dialogue so we need not here go into the dialogue versus recitative debate. The problem with singing in English is that performers have to work harder to make the music sound idiomatic. Without the French language, performances can sound a little flat. Here, the opera is sung in David Parry's own translation. Parry has translated a number of the Chandos ‘Opera in English’ series. His translation is a good, straightforward one which I find lacking in poetry and it does fail to reflect the style of the original libretto. He has a tendency to include colloquial phrases which sound rather out of place when sung.

In the opening, Toby Stafford Allen as Morales lacks the requisite swagger, especially in his scene with the Micaela of Mary Plazas. This is true of all the smaller roles; they are very well sung but often lack sufficient characterisation.

In Carmen's opening number Patricia Bardon sings stylishly but rather intimately, avoiding much real chest tone and large-scale effect. The feeling is of something confiding. I can understand her wish to avoid the standard Carmen clichés but without a strong opening, Bardon never really establishes Carmen's dark sensuality and sexuality. Here she sounds only rather flirtily sexy in a rather lady-like way. Her Habanera, though beautifully sung, has a very intimate feel to it. The sense of the scene is lost if this number does not start as a more general response to the previous male chorus. You have to have some sort of sense that this exchange happens regularly and that Carmen enjoys it. What makes this occasion different is that she notices Don Jose does not pay her attention. Here, the song seems addressed to him from the start and Bardon remains a very lady-like Carmen. In her performances of the role for Scottish Opera, she was commended for the way she dominated the stage and her willingness to take risks to make a dramatic point. It is a shame that she has not brought more of this to the recording.

It is noticeable that Solange Michel and André Cluytens perform the Habanera at a noticeably faster tempo than Bardon and Parry. In fact Cluytens's tempi are often swifter than Parry's and it is worth bearing in mind that Cluytens had conducted the work numerous times in the theatre.

In the refrain of the Habanera, Bardon sings 'If I love you, then just watch out'. This is a decent translation of 'Si je t'aime, prends gards a toi!', but on repeated listening the colloquialism of this English version rather grates on the ear and I cannot help thinking of Carmen Jones's version, "That's the end of you", a far more grateful phrase. This recording has to tread an awkward line between avoiding evocations of Gilbert and Sullivan (always a danger in operetta/opéra-comique in translation) on the one hand and Carmen Jones on the other. Unfortunately it fails on both counts. Memories of Gilbert and Sullivan occur intermittently throughout this performance and Parry's lyrics completely fail to capture the inventiveness and brilliance of Oscar Hammerstein's.

Obviously there are different ways of playing the role of Carmen. Just contrast Victoria de Los Angeles’ rather chic incarnation, very French, (all high stiletto heels with a very discreet knife hidden in her garter) with Callas's earthy incarnation, her very obvious register changes making the most of the opening number. Bardon's Carmen is beautifully sung and with an imaginative producer she is undoubtedly wonderful in the theatre. But on record I feel she lacks vividness. Sung in beautifully enunciated English, her Carmen sounds just too middle class and sensible.

This is something that afflicts Julian Gavin's Don Jose. Gavin sings with a passionate tone that can become a bit constricted. Under the pressure his voice starts to sound as if he is about to break into tears. As an expressive device this might work occasionally, but used throughout the opera it loses its effectiveness. His open timbre combined with his straightforward delivery of the English translation means that Don Jose sounds just a little too sensible. You never really believe that he has fallen for Bardon's Carmen. This is a performance that the opening night audience at the Opéra-Comique would not have found too shocking.

Mary Plazas makes a fine Micaela. She comes over as very self-possessed, which works well in Act III. In Act I this means that there seems to be much less of a gap between her and Patricia Bardon's Carmen.

In Carmen's second number, Bardon injects the 'Tra la la' with a fine sense of insolence, rather more so than the passages with words (but there again, the 'Tra la la' is not strictly in translation). In the Seguidilla she certainly hits the right style. This number is meant to be confiding, so her seductive intimacy feels right, notwithstanding some rather awkward underlay in the text. Understandably, Julian Gavin's Don Jose manages to sound quite carried away.

Parry takes the opening of Act 2 at a very leisurely pace, but adds to the excitement when the speed picks up. Peter Wedd and Mark Le Brocq as Dancaire and Remendado make very well spoken smugglers as do Mary Hegarty and Sally Harrison as Frasquita and Mercedes. In the Couplets, again taken at a steady pace, and their attendant dialogue, the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan rears its head. Gary Magee makes a fine, swaggering Escamillo. Magee lacks the lower notes that the role really needs, but his baritone Escamillo is quite fine enough to join the ranks of Escamillo's other distinguished baritone incarnations. Gavin is most powerful in the Flower Song, but Bardon's subtle response comes over as a little too understated, though the duet ends powerfully. Here, Parry as translator has made a decent stab at translating Zuniga's "J'ouvre moi-même". I have vivid memories of some laughably unhappy versions of this phrase in previous ENO productions. In the Finale though, the sense of the sinister underlying the banter is missing. After all, for the drama to make sense, the smugglers must represent a threat to the soldiers and I think this is lacking here. Though they represent stock Opéra-Comique characters, Bizet's music makes you take the smugglers far more seriously than you would in, say, an operetta by Offenbach.

In the third Act, the Card Scene comes over very well, with Mary Hegarty and Sally Harrison's flirty contributions contrasting well with Bardon's dark tones. Here, Bardon displays a wonderful darkness of hue in her voice, but Parry's tempo is again surprisingly leisurely. Unfortunately, the fight scenes lack impetus despite the best efforts of the singers.

These last two acts work the best as drama, almost as if the conciseness and loss of dialogue have helped Parry and the cast to make more sense of the drama. From the opening of Act 4 to Carmen's final scream, the cast and conductor carry you along impressively.

David Parry conducts a good, steady performance of 'Carmen'. Perhaps too steady. There were times when I felt that the principals would have benefited from a little more power and drive from the pit. But, supported by the chorus, Parry does whip the ensemble passages into a fine excitement and the women of the chorus have a nice line in screams. The March 1875 version, on which Richard Langham Smith's edition is based, includes Bizet's numerous tempi and metronome markings (not all of which made it to the orchestral parts and conducting score). I would be interested to know how David Parry's tempi compare to these and especially when it comes to the slower ones. There is also the issue of pacing, and here the recording rather falls down as there are a number of occasions when there seems to be too much of a pause between music and dialogue, injuring the flow between dialogue and music

There have been so many performances of Carmen committed to record that it is sometimes difficult to know where to start when selecting a recording. The first complete recording, from 1908, is a German one and of interest to specialists only. This also applies to the 1911 French recording, though here the dialogue (delivered by French singers) is a wonder. The Opéra-Comique recording from 1951, conducted by Cluytens and with Solange Michel in the title role, uses spoken dialogue (as had always been the case there) and is a miracle of idiomatic style. It might not be a perfect performance but it is essential listening for everyone. French opera is rarely recorded like this nowadays. After this, come the recordings of the grand opera version. Depending on your point of view, the recitatives are a miracle of style or completely odious, but ignoring this version means that we ignore Callas; Beecham and de Los Angeles giving us a surprisingly seductive, provocative and sparkling Carmen. We would also have to turn our backs on and Schippers and Resnik, whose towering performance often comes pretty high on people’s lists. The first modern dialogue recording was, I think, the version with Grace Bumbry and John Vickers conducted by Frübeck de Burgos. This is one of the few versions to present the opera pretty much as per the March 1875 vocal score. Interest in spoken dialogue versions of 'Carmen' are intimately linked with the release of Oeser's over-complete edition of the opera. Each conductor has made his own selections. Some, like Sinopoli on Teldec, with Jennifer Larmore as Carmen, play Oeser virtually complete, in so doing over-stretching the opera. But Jennifer Larmore's Carmen (recorded before she sang the role on stage), is cool and not a little tentative. Abbado's version with Berganza and Domingo, though admirably based on a stage production, makes questionable choices from the Oeser edition and has shortened dialogue. Another dramatic version is that of Maazel with Julia Migenes Johnson. This was the sound track for a film, and so sounds like a real performance. A more controversial Carmen is that of Jessye Norman, recorded for Philips with Ozawa. Her Carmen is surprisingly successful and she has the advantage of being able to perform the role, dialogue and all, in authentic French. But some of Ozawa's tempi are questionable. Another favourite Carmen is that of Tatiana Troyanos for Sir George Solti on Decca. Troyanos is vibrant and technicolour in the title role and Solti generally make sensible selections from Oeser.

A big question is, of course, how much the edition affects the interpretation. Does a singer's attitude to the title role change if she is using the recitatives rather than the dialogue. The answer is surely yes, so it becomes even harder to make our selections. It is interesting to note that Bizet was contracted to providing recitatives for the Vienna performances of 1875 (all that happened was that Guiraud supplied them instead). So had Bizet lived, we might have had the problem of choosing between the composer's own dialogue and recitative versions. A final problem is the Oeser question. Even if we accept that it is interesting to have Bizet's earlier thoughts on record, a performance that includes as much as possible from Oeser is again going to change the character of the opera a little.

So whatever its shortcomings, this recording is most welcome as the first recording of the new Peters Urtext Carmen, giving us a fine performance of Bizet's final thoughts. This is an excellent, straightforward performance of 'Carmen' in decently projected English. Those wanting 'Carmen' in English should have no doubts about buying this. Those interested in hearing the latest generation of Anglophone singers in these roles can also buy with impunity. But for everyone else, I'd recommend trying out one of the many original language versions. Oh, and for everyone interested in 'Carmen', try and get the Opéra-Comique version.

Robert Hugill

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