Any new recording of Carmen is up against stiff competition
and in so crowded a field it is often difficult to pick a clear
winner. There are so many factors that contribute to one’s final
verdict and personal preferences play their part.
With Carmen we have the question of what version it is.
Nowadays the one with Guiraud’s recitatives that was prepared
after Bizet’s death for the Vienna premiere, is largely out
of vogue, even though some stages, notably the Metropolitan
in New York, stick to it. The present recording follows the
Choudens edition with spoken dialogue but with three numbers
from the Schott version. Most important of those is the duel
duet from act three which is much longer and dramatically makes
more sense. Otherwise it is a fairly middle-of-the-road version
with the spoken dialogue rather curtailed – no great loss, I
think. It keeps the drama on the go.
It’s a distinct advantage to have a French chorus and orchestra.
The secondary roles are also cast with native speakers. This
lends authenticity as it also does to the classic Beecham recording.
On the other hand Abbado’s DG recording, based on the famous
Edinburgh production from the late 1970s, has British forces
and comprimarios and it ranks with the best. But there is no
denying that the smugglers’ quintet and the card scene gain
by being sung in the actors’ mother-tongue. And the first solo
voice we hear, corporal Morales, immediately makes us feel at
home in the idiom. Jean-Luc Ballestra has a very French timbre.
Myung-Whun Chung, though no Frenchman, has a good grip on the
proceedings, chooses sensible tempos throughout and creates
a translucent sound picture. Bizet’s exquisite scoring is well
illuminated. He also has a nice feel for the rhythms: the opening
to act III is springy and arouses enthusiasm. The chorus and
orchestra are good without being able to erase memories of the
Abbado recording – or Beecham’s from fifty years back. No, not
quite. As can be seen from the header the present recording
was made in 2005 and one must wonder why it has had to wait
in the archives for so long. Are there any serious hang-ups?
Well, to my ears the sound is a bit aggressive and there are
even signs of overload in a couple of places. Nothing serious
but when listening through headphones I was a little startled.
But this doesn’t rule out the performance.
When it comes to the singing of the principals I was not wholly
satisfied. Thierry Felix is an uncharacteristically weak and
lyrical Zuniga. He should be a formidable character but here
he almost apologizes for his presence and his spoken dialogue
is lifeless – it seems he is just reading his lines from the
score. Frasquita and Mercedes are his very opposite: involved,
expressive and with distinctive voices.
Eva Mei has the right glittering timbre for Micaela but her
vibrato has widened and the voice seems heavier than the ideal.
She is however varied and nuanced in the first act duet and
sings with great warmth in her aria in act III.
I am a great admirer of Bryn Terfel but I won’t pretend that
he is an ideal Escamillo. His voice is decidedly more Germanic
than French-sounding. The toreador song lacks the grandeur and
flair of, say, Tom Krause, who recorded it twice – for Schippers
and Bernstein – and who has become my touchstone. Terfel has
a lot of charming nuances and in the duel scene he shows his
dramatic mettle, while in the short confrontation with Carmen
in the last act he caresses Si tu m’aimes, Carmen convincingly.
I must admit, though, that I still have yet to hear a bass-baritone
singing it more enchantingly than Heinz Rehfuss on my old Concert
The star of this recording is supposed to be Andrea Bocelli,
though I think it’s perverse to highlight his name in comparatively
gigantic capital letters on the front cover, while Marina Domashenko’s
is reduced to lower-case letters. His first appearance isn’t
too promising. In the duet with Micaela he sings at forte all
the time – though admittedly with glorious tone and he does
end it stylishly at pianissimo.
He grows in the second act and sings the flower song sensitively,
but the very close recording lends an aggressive edge to the
voice. The tone is still monochrome but he is certainly involved
and sings with a glow that could be compared to Pavarotti’s
in his early days. Best of all, without doubt, is the final
duet where he grows to heroic proportions, from a restrained,
very human opening to an impassioned and finally utterly desperate
character. Domingo and Gedda in their respective ways are still
unsurpassed but Bocelli’s is a worthy reading.
More than that is Marina Domashenko’s assumption of the title
role. Her habanera is alluring and sexy, even more so in the
scene that precedes the seguidilla and the seguidilla itself.
This is a Carmen that lives every second of her role and her
dark and grand voice makes her a formidable gypsy. It seems
that Bocelli is inspired by her and sings with fresher voice
than ever before. The gypsy song in act II is again very alive
and in the duet in the same act her dark feelings come to the
fore. This is further underlined in the card scene, where she
pronounces Carreau! Pique! with chilling accuracy. She
already knows her fate. In the final act she is defiant and
dominating, spitting out her Tiens! when she throws the
ring at Don José. Victoria de los Angeles and Teresa Berganza
have made subtler readings of the role and Callas is maybe even
more formidable, but Domashenko is more than worthy to be in
their company and is the possessor of a magnificent voice, even
throughout the register and of great beauty.
Marina Domashenko requires to be heard in this role and though
this recording as a total experience doesn’t sweep the field
it has a lot to recommend it.