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Georges BIZET (1838–1875)
Carmen - opera in four acts (1875)
Text: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after Prosper Mérimée's novel
Moralès: Malcolm Walker
Micaëla: Marie McLaughlin
Don José: Barry McCauley
Carmen: Maria Ewing
Frasquita: Elizabeth Collier
Mercédès: Jean Rigby
Lilias Pastia: Frederico Davià
Escamillo: David Holloway
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1985
Director: Peter Hall
Design and Lighting: John Bury
Directed for video by Peter Hall
Produced for video by Robin Lough
Dolby Digital Stereo, NTSC 4:3, Colour
WARNER DVD 4509-99494-2 [174:00]

 

Bizet originally intended Carmen to be an opera, but had to include spoken dialogue to enable it to be performed at the only Paris theatre available to him – The Opéra-comique. He intended to produce a version substituting recitative for the dialogue; this would enable it to be performed at the Paris Opéra and other traditional opera theatres. Unfortunately he died before he could do this, but his friend Ernest Guiraud did this after his death. Carmen became very popular worldwide originally using the sung version. However, in the quest for “authenticity” most modern performances use the spoken dialogue and also restore cuts that had been approved by the composer; this is the case with this performance which is noticeably longer than the edition that I grew up with. In my opinion this is not to its advantage.

The original theatre, the Opéra-comique was relatively small and thus a performance at Glydnebourne is very appropriate. Peter Hall has produced a setting that is based upon the original setting in Spain in the middle of the 19th century; the production is to be commended for its emphasis on realism and drama. The costumes look authentic and the production is well lit.

For any performance of Carmen, the singer taking the title role is all-important as she must not only be a fine singer but also have the necessary acting ability and personality to project herself as a femme fatale. In pre-war days, Conchita Supervia was considered by many to be the ideal Carmen. In more recent years, Maria Callas gave some brilliant performances and it is tragic that her performance is not available on DVD. Here it must be said that Marie Ewing is quite outstanding. With her long face and big sensual lips, she is not conventionally good looking but when she is on stage she dominates and you find it hard to take your eyes off her. She sings the part well, but is also an outstanding actress. No one could fail to understand how Don José would give up everything to be with her.

Barry McCauley is a good choice for the part of Don José, he is an American tenor with a good voice, however he fails to project much character and it seems strange that Carmen should fall for him. David Holloway as Escamillo has a fine voice and a fine swagger to go with it – a good choice as the toreador. Marie McLaughlin sings well as Don José’s soppy childhood girl-friend but the part is one that it is almost impossible to make much impression with. All the minor characters sing and act well. From a staging point of view it is an almost perfect production.

The other ingredient for a perfect Carmen is the conductor. Sir Thomas Beecham is unsurpassed in this repertoire and his recordings still sound very well despite their age. Another conductor who gets under the skin of Carmen is Herbert von Karajan whose recording is very good from an orchestral viewpoint. Here, the LPO play well under Haitink who catches the Spanish idiom of the dances and the light delicacy of much of the music. However Haitink tends to underplay the dramatic moments that fail to thrill – this is most obvious in the last act that in the right hands can be searing with tragedy.

The DVD is well presented and looks and sounds well. It is however a pity that to save money, the notes are printed on the rear of main label and thus have to be read through the plastic sleeve. A separate booklet would be much more user-friendly.

Arthur Baker

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