You can fit the more
famous numbers from ‘Carmen’ quite easily
onto a single CD. And with such potted
excerpts, we can listen to Bizet’s lovely
music without having to worry about
all the various issues regarding edition,
language, dialogue and recitative that
can beset a recording. This particular
recording was made as the sound-track
of a film, but was received reasonably
enthusiastically when first issued on
CD. It does however, have one slightly
controversial feature: Carmen is played
by a soprano.
Carmen is sung here
by Julia Migenes Johnson. Her Habanera
is wonderfully shapely and sexy, in
a quite light flirty manner. She resorts
to a rather confiding tone at times.
This works musically but is wrong for
the drama of the piece. In the Séguidille
her use of an intimate tone is surprisingly
successful, though she seems to lack
the requisite power as the piece builds
towards its climax. In Act 4 she and
Placido Domingo (as Don José)
give us a wonderfully dramatic climax
to the opera.
Domingo still displays
a fine flexible line even though he
is a bit tighter at the top than when
I heard him in the role at the Edinburgh
Festival (recorded for DG with Teresa
Berganza as Carmen). He can slim his
voice down, so the Act I duet with Micaela
comes over as suitably intimate and
credible. He sings in decent French,
but you would never mistake him for
a French tenor (if such a beast still
exists). He delivers a powerful rendition
of the Flower Song which only makes
us regret that the scene is cut short
at that point.
As Micaela, Faith Esham
displays a strong vibrato. This, coupled
with her pleasantly warm voice, makes
her Micaela sound a little knowing;
not naïve and virginal enough.
Also, there is inevitably not quite
enough contrast with Migenes Johnson.
Esham would, I think, come over better
with a more traditional dark mezzo Carmen.
In her Act 3 solo she sounds rather
less self-possessed than some Micaelas
I have heard, which makes the scene
far more dramatically credible.
As Escamillo, Ruggiero
Raimondi displays the familiar failing
that the lower notes in his big aria
seem just out of reach. Apart from this
he gives a fine, robust performance.
Both Domingo and Migenes
Johnson sing in decent French and all
the cast are adequate in this respect
(we hardly hear from François
le Roux, the one native speaker in the
cast). But it is Migenes Johnson who
uses the sound of the French language
to inflect her voice, so that she starts
to sound French rather than just singing
the language; a great advantage in an
internationally cast Carmen such as
Maazel’s tempi are
generally spot-on and he is rarely self-indulgent;
except perhaps in the opening to Act
2 which is taken at a very leisurely
Despite the high level
of music making, I cannot help feeling
that this disc is Carmen ‘lite’. With
a running time of just 55 minutes, there
is plenty of space for other items.
We do not get Carmen’s taunting response
to the Flower Song in Act 2. There is
no Card Scene and no prelude to Act
3. So, apart from Act 4, we get little
chance to hear the darker, fatalistic
side to Carmen’s character. This makes
the excerpts dramatically one sided.
And, with a soprano Carmen we end up
with just the lighter-voiced numbers.
But then, all sopranos
must adopt some sort of scheme for coping
with singing a part written so much
with the darker tones of the mezzo in
mind. De Los Angeles gave us probably
the chic-est Carmen on record; Callas
was sui generis, utilising the
very Italianate break in her voice to
remarkable effect. So Migenes Johnson
uses a flirty, confiding tone that works
well enough. I did rather wonder how
much this was due to her lack of a real
dark bottom to her voice, though her
lower register is effective enough.