Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
Carmen (1875)
Marina Domashenko (mezzo) – Carmen; Andrea Bocelli (tenor) – Don José; Eva Mei (soprano) – Micaela; Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone) – Escamillo; Thierry Felix (bass) – Zuniga; Jean-Luc Ballestra (baritone) – Morales; Magali Léger (soprano) – Frasquita; Delphine Haidan (mezzo) – Mercédes; Olivier Lallouette (baritone) – Le Dancaire; Alain Gabriel (tenor) – Le Remendado;
Choeur de Radio France, Maîtrise de Radio France
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung
rec. Salle Messiaen, Radio France, 26 June–2 July, 24 October 2005
Libretto with English and German translations enclosed
DECCA 475 7646 [62:56 + 76:14]

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 Hall recording.

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.

Göran Forsling

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.