Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen - opera (1875)
Carmen – Elena Obraztsova
Don José – Plácido Domingo
Escamillo – Yuri Mazurok
Micaëla – Isobel Buchanan
Frasquita – Cheryl Kanfoush
Mercédès – Axelle Gall
Zuniga – Kurt Rydl
Moralès – Hans Helm
Vienna Boys’ Choir, Wiener Staatsoper Chorus and Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
rec. live, December 1978, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria
DVD, 4:3 aspect; PCM Stereo, NTSC (all regions).
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107 263 [154:00]
Of Carmen performances this is perhaps the most talked about and the most respected.
Zeffirelli first made a name for himself when directing Romeo and Juliet and later with such productions as Tosca, Norma and Turandot, in which he was always sensitive to detail in staging.
Carmen was Bizet’s last work and was completed in 1875. Bizet had difficulties with theatre managers due to its risqué content. In rehearsal both orchestra and chorus said there were places where the music was impossible to either play or sing. Bizet’s sudden death came during the première run and so was deprived of knowing how successful his last opera would become. For him to have seen Zeffirelli’s spectacle would have truly amazed him.
Apart from its authentic Spanish settings and star performances this production owes much to the exacting standards set by Carlos Kleiber. He rarely worked in the opera house because of critical self-assessment and frustration in getting his interpretations correctly represented. His Dresden recording of Der Freischütz (1973) is legendary and conductors since have had difficulty in matching Kleiber’s musical expertise. He shunned theatre directors and refused to let televised recordings of rare performances be released on video. We are told in Gottfried Kraus’s interesting notes accompanying the disc that when a Wiener Staatsoper live video series was planned, the request was granted. Kleiber died, however, before this 2004 release was issued.
The focus in the opera is firmly on the principals, Carmen, Don Jose and the Toreador and the interaction between them. Amongst them, Domingo is the only Mediterranean who can give the necessary emotional fire that an audience looks for. His sincerity in the role and in acting is admirable throughout. Both Carmen and Escamillo are Russian and despite truly glorious singing they are emotionally cold, and in want of sensitivity in their acting, particularly Yuri Mazurok: rarely is there eye contact between Carmen and her lover. In her dancing, a few steps and twirls, Carmen lacks the energy and commitment it deserves. Fortunately this short-coming is masked by the excellent stage business and activity provided elsewhere by a very industrious chorus.
Zeffirelli’s staging is complex and a joy to behold: horses, a donkey, flirting señoritas, market vendors, a pastor and his tutelage, children mimics of an army all engage the mind and the eye. His groupings complemented the well-filled authentic sets. The television production team had one chance to get it right since the first night was televised for live transmission. They achieve remarkable results giving much variety especially in close-ups. The orchestra is well recorded but theatre limitations mean that the principals are not ideally balanced when singing up-stage. Fortunately this does not affect the clarity of the choral singing.
A well written booklet about the staging of this production with synopsis and critique by Andrew Greene of former recordings of this opera are provided in English, French and German - with colour photographs. Surprisingly no background to Bizet is provided. Subtitles are available in English/French/German/Spanish/Italian/Chinese.
Raymond J Walker
see also review by Robert Farr
Domingo’s sincerity is admirable throughout. There’s excellent stage business - a joy to behold.