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
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
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
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.