Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Georges BIZET (1838-1870)
Carmen. Opera in 4 Acts with sung recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud.
Carmen: Angela Gheorghiu (sop). Don José: Roberto Alagna (ten). Michaela: Inva Mula (sop). Escamillo: Thomas Hampson (bar). Frasquita: Elizabeth Vidal (sop). Mercedes: Isabelle Cals (sop). Morales: Ludovic Tezier (bar). Zuniga: Nicholas Cavallier (bass)
Choeur "Les Elements"
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson.
Recorded February and March 2002, Halle aux Grains, Toulouse.
‘Special Price’
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 57434 2 8 ]3CDs: 57.03+40.10+60.18]


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

The booklet essay accompanying this new recording, by Hervé Lacombe, deals with the writing and original staging of Carmen in its ‘opéra-comique’ (spoken dialogue) form. It also addresses the later addition of sung recitatives to music by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud after the composer’s untimely death. Bizet himself intended to write his own recitatives for a production at the ‘Vienna Grand Opera’. It was with Guiraud’s additions that Carmen, at least outside Paris, achieved its great popularity. This practice was adopted for most recordings until the move to period instruments and the quest to follow the composer’s original intentions, supported by scholarship, came into vogue. Spoken French dialogue can present difficulties to a multinational cast and some attempts on record are pretty rough. So, given that two of the principals and the minor parts are sung by native speakers, the Escamillo is fluent and the name part married to a French speaker, the reversion to the bastardised Guiraud version is somewhat idiosyncratic; or perhaps this version is seen as being more popular with the buying public. What is welcome, without debate, is the inclusion of a recently discovered version of Carmen’s entrance solo. It is notated 5a (CD 1 tr 12) and follows the usual ‘Habanera’.

If the matter of editions is contentious, the singing of the name part should be less so, even if, as here, it is sung by a true soprano not the mezzo register for which Bizet wrote. After all, there have been several famous sopranos who have recorded the role including the enchanting Carmen of Victoria de los Angeles for Beecham and the smoky toned seductress characterised by Leontyne Price on Karajan’s first recording. But, above all, it was the tigress Callas’s recorded performance that marked the role among sopranos. ‘Callas is Carmen’ blazed the 1964 adverts as the LPs were issued in their resplendent special issue scarlet box. However, by the time of that recording Callas’s fragile vocal state was really only suited to the lower ‘mezzoish’ region of her voice. Here, Gheorghiu’s voice is, as ever, even and beautiful in colour and overtones over its wide range. Indeed, in the chest register she reveals a power, depth and sonority I have not heard from her before. Individual numbers, out of their context, ravish the ear, but here is the rub, she just is not Carmen. There is a lack of earthy gritty passion and sensuality that are essential for a recorded portrayal in particular. One also feels that this Carmen wouldn’t seduce José to her bed; she would command him! What Gheorghiu lacks, Troyanos for Solti (Decca), Bumbry (EMI Classics) and Baltsa (Karajan’s second studio recording on DG) have in abundance and which draw the listener into the drama.

Alagna as so often when singing in French is first rate. There is no squeezed tone, sliding up to the note or strain that I found marred his Manrico in EMI’s ‘Il Trovatore’ last year (reviewed by me elsewhere on this site). He has more character and tone than Gedda (with both de los Angeles and Callas) and is more disciplined than Corelli and Vickers (with Price and Bumbry respectively). Only Domingo (with both Berganza on DG’s post-Edinburgh Festival 1975 recording under Abbado and Troyanos) matches Alagna for character and musicianship, whilst the former’s enunciation of the spoken dialogue is hardly idiomatic on either performance. This is the best recording Alagna has made for some time (try his ‘Flower Song’ CD 2 tr 15). It is sensitively sung with good tone as well as a real sense of meaning. As his rival for Carmen’s charms, the Escamillo of Thomas Hampson is more suave seducer than swaggering toreador. He is a pleasure to listen to and his French is well up to the mark. With Plasson’s support his excellent ‘Votre toast’ is as good as any rival. José’s hometown sweetheart, Michaela, a part Gheorghiu has sung on record, is here sung with full-toned vibrancy by Inva Mula. Not as sweet toned as Te Kanawa (for Solti) but much more expressive, and certainly preferable to Cotrubas’s rather thin tone (for Abbado). She does, however, lack something of the tenderness of the innocent, but gutsy, girl that one expects, and her diction could be better. The Mercedes and Frasquita sing well and contribute to an impressively dramatic card scene with its sudden change of mood as Carmen turns the cards (CD 3 trs 5-9). Good contributions in terms of vocal security, characterisation and enunciation of the text come from the Morales and Zuniga in particular, as well as the other minor parts. The chorus is full voiced, appropriately vibrant and with good articulation.

Plasson’s conducting has many virtues; his pacing and rhythms are near ideal. The overture and entr’actes go particularly well although the tension in the final act sags a little, as much the fault of the singers as the conductor. The recording is first class with good balance, clarity and bloom. It is much better than that on Abbado’s recording, which I find rather flat, or Karajan’s with its overblown rather false sonic perspectives. Its only failing is in setting the castanets in the dance too far away from the dancer! The booklet has an informative essay on the versions of the opera and a brief one by Gheorghiu on her view of Carmen. There is an excellent track-related synopsis and the full libretto is provided with translations in English and German. The booklet only lacks artist biographies, which I would have preferred to their photographs, which are included.

This issue joins several others that miss the ideal in varying degrees. Given the current state of the record industry it may be some time before another comes along. If EMI’s favourite golden duo is your cup of tea then go for it, as there is much to enjoy, particularly whilst the three discs are on offer for the price of two. Their three disc Roméo and Juliette had a similar launch, but I note that in some superstores the price has crept up; caveat emptor! For me, I will wait and hope that the principals from this recording are soon in the studio to record Faust; they would only need a sonorous and sardonic Mephisto. I can but dream and hope. At least EMI, unlike others, (Chandos excepted) are still recording studio opera.

Robert J. Farr


Robert McKechnie has also listened to this recording

Whether you are selling chalk or cheese, if you are entering a well-stocked and competitive market, you must offer something different. In commercial jargonese, this is called ‘added value’. There is no doubt that the market is well stocked in recordings of this opera.

Thus our first question must be: what is different about this recording? Before we attempt to answer that, we must remind ourselves that like a particular chalk or cheese there is no definitive version of what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’. With most operas there were revisions and re-writes for different singers, productions, locations of production and in some cases for different decades. Like chalk and cheese there are certain specific basics, which in opera are the story line, melodies and dramatic moments; but apart from those it is a case of take your pick.

So in addition to the performers and interpretation, what does this recording ‘pick’ or offer, to distinguish it from others. The accompanying booklet makes three relevant points. The first, which is obvious immediately, is that this version uses Ernest Guiraud’s sung recitative, not Bizet’s spoken words. Although many recent recordings have used the spoken recitative, Guiraud’s recitative was the ‘norm’ say pre-1960s. The important point is made clear in the booklet that "The present recording is based on this version…" (my italics).

The second point in the booklet is that Morales’ Scene and Pantomime have been added to Act I restoring "…the atmosphere of an entertainment…" and establishing "…a vision of relations between the sexes as a game…" which assumes "…a tragic dimension…". The final point is the inclusion of a recently discovered, earlier and rejected, version of the Habanera.

So far so good and in one moment we will look at the recording with those points in mind. However, one final preliminary point occurs to me: it is rumoured that ‘the golden couple’ of this recording will sing this opera on location in Seville next year. I would be surprised if that does not trigger another recording release. Should you save your pennies and await a comparative review with that prospective release? Keep reading. I shall answer that.

Orchestrally, I think that this is a firecracker of a recording. Just once or twice, for example in the Chorus of Street Boys, there is a slight loss of ‘togetherness’. Apart from that ‘nit-pick’ this is the sound of an orchestra coming ebullient to familiar sounds and making them fresh and vibrant. Although the sound is not particularly ‘full’ there is an intensity which more than compensates; and where lyricism is required, lyricism is provided … with precision. Plasson reins them back where necessary and ensures support and balance for a strong vocal cast.

To state the obvious, the part of Carmen was written for a ‘mezzo’. Gheorghiu is a soprano. In her booklet commentary on the recording, she rationalises that "… a soprano’s wide vocal palette can reveal the youth, sensuality and fragility of this powerful character". No one would disagree with that, but I would question the implication that those qualities cannot be revealed by a mezzo. Certainly Gheorghiu sings the role as she has written about it. The Habanera is smooth and silky. There is fragility about it: but no factory girl fighter or raunchy sexual tempestuous lover. This Carmen might charm you but she will never threaten your mental security – until the last Act. After the Habanera, almost as a coda, we hear the earlier version. Interesting? Certainly. Superbly sung with one or two excellently floated notes; but really no more than that. I’m with Bizet: leave it out.

The Seguidilla is sung similarly. Seduction with not a note missed or a word blurred. However for me there was no seriously deep warmth of tone. Contrast that with her Gypsy Song, which is electrifyingly good. This does not require warmth – just superb phrasing and dynamics that are there in plenty.

There is a super-abundance of them from Alagna in the Letter duet. I think that this is over-emotional. Mother is less than a day’s journey away and it is only later that he learns that she is ill. However from that point on there is good characterisation of the descent of ‘the boy next door’ into the man’s depths of despair. I enjoyed particularly his Flower Song in Act II, but more even than that, the preceding interplay with Gheorghiu. It was entirely believable.

As was every note and sound of the last Act. This recording of the Act must be near the top of the list as one of the freshest, liveliest and most emotionally charged. Even if you are not a ‘golden couple’ fan you will not be unmoved. Powerful orchestra, well-paced brisk vibrant chorus, clear characterisation and all seriously well balanced. Here Gheorghiu delivering a head to chest voice descent of staggering emotion; there Alagna descending to grovelling misery and venom.

For the most part they are well supported. Thomas Hampson is a solid but not stolid Escamillo. Perhaps "youth … and fragility …" would be attracted to him; but this Escamillo would not captivate a raunchy Carmen. This is not the fearless ‘devil may care’ Toreador. This is the ‘risk assessment’ Toreador, who enjoys, but does not revel in, admiration.

Micaëla becomes a difficult role with that portrayal of Carmen. To me, Micaëla is "youth … and fragility …" – or the girl next door. Therefore there is not the usual strong contrast with an earthy Carmen. I would hesitate to say that this is a vocally brittle Micaëla but there are some moments that border on the shrill and others where there is a distinct wobble. Sadly I do not think that she and Alagna balance well vocally which was a disappointment for the emotionally charged Letter scene with its strong undercurrents.

Ludovic Tézier is a lively Moralès and Nicolas Cavallier a sound if not authoritative Zuniga. The Frasquita of Elizabeth Vidal and Mercédès of Isabelle Cals are splendidly supportive. They, with Nicolas Rivenq and Yann Beuron (with Carmen), provide an exciting quintet at Lillas Pastia’s. There is some superbly contrasted vocal pizzicato with earlier silky legato in an excellently balanced quintet.

Now to the ‘added value’ question. First I have dealt with the earlier Habanera. Second I do not think that the Moralès Scene and Pantomime achieve that which is claimed for them. Third I refer to the statement that this recording is "based on" Guiraud’s version.

You know the plot. I know the plot. It is here that I believe that this recording has serious weaknesses. I will not list all the omitted plot details. That would be tedious; but I will justify my reservations by two detailed examples. The first surrounds establishing the early relationship between Don José and Carmen. On this recording instead of reading extracts from his Mother’s letter, Don José paraphrases her instructions to marry Micaëla. He then refers to Carmen as a "… filthy witch …" That immediately sets up a problem. If he believes that then why does he allow her to escape? Which question is re-inforced by the omission of Carmen’s pleas to escape and for a loosening of her bindings. The chemistry between them is assumed and not spelled out. There is no psychological development. I regard this as a serious omission.

My second example relates to the fight between Escamillo and Don José. You and I know that there are two parts: in the first Escamillo merely defends himself but then ignores the chance to kill Don José. In the second when that is reversed, Carmen interrupts to prevent Escamillo’s death. On this recording the first part is omitted. That not only diminishes Escamillo’s character but also makes a nonsense of his later line to Don José "… it’s one all and we’ll play for two out of three whenever you wish to renew the fight!"

Therefore there are distractions on this recording which lead to inconsistencies. Should you buy this CD? Well, No and Yes. No, if it is to give to someone as his or her first recording or who is unfamiliar with the plot. No, if you think that there will be a recording resulting from the Seville events – wait and see the reviews for that. Yes, if you would like a generous recording on three discs with many cue points. Yes, if notwithstanding its only modest interest, you wish to complete your collection with the discarded Habanera. Finally, yes for the stunning last Act – which just about justifies on its own the purchase of this mid-priced recording.

Robert McKechnie


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