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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen [163:00]
Grace Bumbry (Carmen – mezzo), Jon Vickers (Don José – tenor), Mirella Freni (Micaëla – soprano), Justino Diaz (Escamillo – baritone), Olivera Miljakovic (Frasquita – soprano), Julia Hamari (Mercédès – mezzo), Robert Kerns (Moralès – baritone), Anton Diakov (Zuniga – bass), Kurt Equiluz (Dancaïre – baritone), Milen Paunov (Remendado - tenor), Mariemma and Ballet de España, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Film direction by Herbert von Karajan.
Sound recording: Sofiensaal, Vienna, 6/1967.
Filmed in Munich, Bavaria Studios, 8/1967
Subtitles in French, English, German, Spanish, Chinese
UNITEL DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00440 073 4032 [163:00]

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This film has, of course, been available on video for years, but a "Karajan spectacular" such as this can only gain from the superior technology and more durable format of the DVD. It was based on a 1966 Salzburg production by Karajan himself but the 1967 film was not simply a run of performances with the cameras switched on; treating the highly naturalistic stage décor as cinema sets, Karajan himself directed a made-for-the-screen version which achieves plenty of stage movement and colour without deflecting our attention from the fact that this is the story of Carmen, Don José and, to a lesser degree, Micaëla and Escamillo. The singers were acting to a previously-made sound recording, but only in the case of Mirella Freni are there more than passing problems of lip-synch. The Maestro himself can be seen in the preludes and interludes, his eyes tight shut and moulding the third act prelude with the palm of his hand.

The film is a perfect demonstration of how much more there is to an opera than the music. Taken purely as a sound document, we would have to complain that the bad old version with added recitatives by Guiraud is used, that Karajan interpolates a string of dances from other sources – including the "Farandole" from "L’Arlésienne", "Spanified" with an arsenal of castanets – into the second act, that Vickers was hardly a French tenor – though nothing like as stentorian as Franco Corelli, often to be heard in the role in those days – and that Karajan takes the "international" view that Bizet is a precursor of Mascagni, if not Mahler, and is to be played for all his worth.

Taken as a total experience, however, I would say that none of these considerations can detract an iota from a truly dramatic presentation. Pride of place must go to Grace Bumbry. In her case, even as a sound-only recording this would be one of the best-sung versions on disc, but her characterisation is everywhere superb. It is not just a question of looking sexy with rolling eyes and pouting lips; she puts across that mysterious power of the femme fatale which is essential if we are to find it credible that a decent soldier like Don José is so easily led to pile degradation upon degradation, abandoning his mother, his girlfriend, his military oath and finally turning murderer. At the beginning of the opera, as the scene fills with cigarette girls, the cry comes up, "but where is Carmencita?". You’d think that, with so many girls, one more or less would make no difference, but the moment she enters you know why. There are people who have the power to enter a room and become immediately the focus of attention, they exude a sort of control over the room, and Grace Bumbry’s Carmen is one of these. When such a person is a woman, she may use her power well or badly; Carmen uses it amorally; that is to say, going where her instincts take her without a precise end in view. She is confident that, whatever the next stage may be, she will be able to turn it to her advantage. And so she goes gunning for Don José, but the last thing she really wants is the sort of ties her behaviour may lead to, so, having made her point, it is not long before she has her sights on Escamillo. She is also deeply superstitious, however, and having read her fate in the cards thinks only of meeting it with her head held high, her free spirit intact.

There may be other ways of reading Carmen’s character, but that presented by Grace Bumbry is fully convincing and credible. It is a great performance, not least for the way each phrase or movement contributes its part to the whole.

Jon Vickers was something of an expert in men at the end of their tether; Otello, Florestan and Peter Grimes were three of his most famous roles. His powerful voice may in theory be all wrong for this opera, and in order to size it down and produce some honeyed pianissimo he has to use a lot of falsetto. But the characterization and the acting ring true, as the straightforward, slightly shy soldier abandons decency and self-respect for a woman whom he soon realizes is slipping through his fingers anyhow until, with nothing more to lose, he turns to murder as a way out. A truly dramatic assumption.

Mirella Freni never was much of an actress, but at this stage in her career she looked like Micaëla anyway. That being so, she might have spared us such attempts at acting as she does provide, these consisting of (a) wearing an imbecilic, toothy smile when not actually singing (in the first act particularly) and (b) rolling her head around in a manner which is somewhat disconcerting since it derives from no discernible expressive agenda, it just doesn’t seem to have been screwed on properly. Her demure appearance perhaps deflects attention from the fact that this was, even at that early stage, more of a Puccini voice than a Bizet one, and her French is poor – the "Mary" she keeps on telling Don José about is actually his mother (mère).

Tall, dark and ruggedly handsome, Justino Diaz seems to have been made by nature to be a bullfighter, a Latin lover and a public idol – and here he can play all three. Since he also sings very well this is a classic portrayal. The minor parts are all very well taken, with particular mention for the Frasquita and Mercédès; it is interesting to find Kurt Equiluz, stalwart of so many Telefunken Bach recordings, turning up as Dancaïre.

So all in all, this DVD will bring into your house something of the frisson of a great night in the opera house – a great night such as you will not so easily find now that the heydays of Karajan et al are long past.

Christopher Howell

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