Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
Carmen (1875)
Jessye Norman (soprano) – Carmen; Mirella Freni (soprano) – Micaëla; Neil Shicoff (tenor) – Don José; Simon Estes (bass-baritone) – Escamillo; Jean-Philippe Courtis (bass) – Zuniga; Ghylaine Raphanel (soprano) – Frasquita; Jean Rigby (mezzo) – Mercédès; Francois Le Roux (baritone) – Le Dancaire; Gérard Garino (tenor) – Le Remendado; Nicolas Rivenq (baritone) – Moralès; Pierre Sébastian (spoken role) – Lillas Pastia; Serge Coorsan (spoken role) – Un Guide; Choeurs de Radio France, Maîtrise de Radio France, Orchestre National de France/Seiji Ozawa
rec. Grand Auditorium de Radio France, Paris, July 1988
Synopsis in three languages but no libretto enclosed
DECCA 00289 478 2488 [79:55 + 78:39]

The producer of this original Philips issue was Erik Smith and experienced collectors know that this is as good a trademark as any to ensure an enjoyable performance. Since it is a co-production with Radio France some compromises may have been necessary and I feel I have to mention a few quirky points that irritated me. This is a version with spoken dialogue and then there is the well-known problem of balance. This time I listened to the set through headphones and a portable CD-player while on a journey and every time a patch of dialogue cropped up I had to turn up the volume to a maximum to be able to hear the voices and when I forgot to turn it down again the music came as a heavy blow on my ears. Checking on my permanent equipment the problems remained – though to a lesser extent. Another irritant was the too long pauses between numbers. I always prefer a continuous flow of the drama and here there was a feeling of hesitation. Apart from this the sound is excellent and the playing and singing of the French Radio forces leave little to be desired. French-speaking choristers and musicians form a good foundation for a recording of this French-Spanish drama. There are native speakers in the important minor roles as well; the only exception being Jean Rigby’s Mercédès, who is wholly idiomatic.

We are offered a very full version of the score and the spoken dialogue, here in a version by Janine Reiss, who also is the language coach and conductor’s assistant. To me it sounds sensible, giving much more background to the understanding of the characters than the version with Guiraud’s recitatives.

The most controversial thing about this production is Seiji Ozawa’s conducting. He quite often chooses extreme tempos, mostly on the slow side. The greatest sinner among his conductor colleagues is Leonard Bernstein in his DG recording with Met forces back in the early 1970s. He is often perversely slow and some scenes are almost somnambulistic. I return to his reading infrequently and sometimes find him enthralling – but eccentric. Ozawa is easier to live with and his aim is, no doubt, to focus on the emotions of Jessye Norman’s highly individual reading of the title role. Ozawa very frequently slows down to give her time to cajole a phrase, to wring out the last drop of erotic allure. Just listen to the Habanera; maybe even more the seductive Seguidilla. The gypsy song at the beginning of act II starts very slowly but accelerates to near-frenzy. The smugglers’ quintet on the other hand fizzes along with elegance and esprit but comes to a momentary magical near-stand-still when Carmen reveals: ‘Je suis amoureuse!’

I could go on and pick similar moments that may seem mannered but in the end feel logical and natural. Anyway this is a unique and very fascinating collaboration between a conductor and a singer who work on the same wavelength.

Jessye Norman is in grandiose form, singing with glorious tone. Her moulding of phrase after phrase, that we have heard hundreds of times, is special indeed. Ms Norman opens the score before our eyes and shows us: ‘Look! This is a magic moment! Georges has a secret to tell about me, Carmen!’ Of all the Carmen recordings I have heard none has a more individual heroine.

Neil Shicoff is also an individualist, though not as extreme as his Carmen. As is his wont he digs wholeheartedly into his character, creating a Don José who is full of passion. The Flower Song is emotionally charged and he ends it with a beautiful diminuendo. He is heroic in the third act and humble in the opening of the final duet, but when faced with the inevitable fact: Carmen is going to leave him, all his mental dams burst. It is heart-rending.

Mirella Freni’s Micaëla was one of her loveliest creations, but by 1988 her voice had lost something of its youthful freshness and her aria is slightly marred by too much strain. The final pianissimo is however as lovely as ever. And in the beautiful duet with Don José in Act I she is caressing and caring, not the shy girl from the opening scene.

I am in two minds about Simon Estes. His was one of the finest bass-baritones of his generation but too often he employed it quite clumsily. The Toreador Song is un-French and rather crude but he also finds more soft nuances than most of his colleagues. In the duet with Don José in act III he seems almost reticent – not just a professional butcher, and I have to say that he surpasses most other Escamillos in the short love-duet at the beginning of the last act in beautiful legato.

All in all this is a remarkable recording. Partly it is quite unorthodox and I can’t say I like everything but so much is deeply moving and illuminating and Jessye Norman’s assumption of the title role is unforgettable. At budget price – and it comes on only two CDs, full to bursting point – every lover of this opera should treat themselves to this extraordinary experience. It’s a fascinating corrective to all other versions.

Göran Forsling

A remarkable recording. Jessye Norman’s assumption of the title role is unforgettable.