Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen - Opera in 4 Acts (1875)
Carmen - Elena Obraztsova (mezzo); Don José - Plácido Domingo (tenor);
Michaela - Isobel Buchanan (soprano); Escamillo - Yuri Mazurok (baritone);
Frasquita - Cheryl Kanfoush (soprano); Mercedes - Axelle Gall (soprano);
Morales - Hans Helm (baritone); Zuniga - Kurt Rydl (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/Carlos Kleiber
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 1978
Director and Set designer: Franco Zeffirelli.
Costume designer: Leo Bei
TV and Video Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
DVD Format: DVD 9, NTSC
Subtitle Languages: French (original language), English, German,
Spanish and Italian
107 263 [154:00]
This production, from the Vienna State Opera is a typical Zeffirelli spectacular. It is of the type he presented at the Met in New York, and now being rapidly replaced, La Scala, or any other theatre that could then afford the cost. The opening act sets the tone with the stage well populated by people and diversions such as vendors and children eating fruit. The second act, set at Lilas Pastia, gets a big round of applause as does that to act four, and that is before the parade of horses that follow the quadrilla led through by the banderillos and picadors, all lavishly attired. Everything is on a grand scale, even when it means that Carmen cannot push Don José over in act one, to free herself, and instead brings down the support of one of the vendors’ awnings to impede the arresting soldiers and make her escape (CH.21). Nor is the handling of the fight scene between José and Escamillo, particularly its ending, well handled (CHs.46-47)
Another difference to note from the normal film of an opera performance is the frequent shots of conductor Carlos Kleiber in the pit. This was specially lit as demanded by Zeffirelli, in charge of the filming as well as being stage director. Here we come to the crux of this re-issue previously available on DVD from TDK. Notoriously difficult to get in the recording studio, let alone the opera house, this shy man of undoubted genius left only a few recordings either in audio let alone in video. The accompanying booklet essay says that in fact this Carmen was his only opera premiere of the seven or so operas he conducted. He only gave permission for its release shortly prior to his death in 2004. Certainly his contribution, despite the fast pace he often adopts, as early as the prelude, is a significant one. It is interesting to see how he draws his magic from the players who respond to his minimal beat on one hand (CH.22) to violent animation on other occasions.
The audience response is well over the top with prolonged applause after José’s flower song (CH.33). This lasts nearly three minutes, with Elena Obraztsova looking increasingly bored, having to watch the end of act curtain calls. Yes, these are part of the occasion, but Vienna audiences of the period were not renowned for moderation. For the DVD watcher the quality of picture and sound are, however, an issue. Compared with the latest HD filming and DTS sound, the picture is a little woolly but not excessively so. The stereo sound is on the thin side with a touch of harshness.
As well as the possibility of being a visual spectacular, the success of any performance of Carmen depends, more than many stage works, on the singing and acting of the four principals. In the eponymous role low mezzo Obraztsova sings effortlessly with round creamy tone in her act one arias (CHs.10 and 20). However, neither vocally nor in her acted portrayal does she reflect Carmen’s sexuality which is supposed to entrance Don José and her many other admirers outside the cigarette factory. If Bizet’s Carmen is a bit of a low class tart, Obraztsova, dressed as for a Spanish Sunday afternoon promenade, looks and acts more like an upmarket demure Signora. She cannot dance with any sexuality at all despite the castanets (CH.31) and it is no wonder Jose opts for the call to barracks! A young Plácido Domingo sings the supposedly besotted José with strong lyric ardour. His acting is convincing and he holds nothing back whilst being tasteful at the same time. In his singing and acting he is matched by the Scottish soprano Isobel Buchanan as Micaela. She was, I believe, a late replacement in the cast. I recall an interview given by her when she said of her debut at Vienna that she met Domingo for the first time on stage at a premiere, having had only a brief stage rehearsal beforehand. I cannot recall if her comments related to this performance. Whatever, she sings and acts outstandingly with elegant phrasing, purity of tone and exemplary expression in both her arias (CHs.13 and 45). As the supposedly strutting toreador Yuri Mazurok sings with slender dryish tone and lack of much tonal colour. As to strutting or bravura they seem not to be his thing. The minor parts are all sung and acted adequately particularly the Mercedes and Frasquita of Cheryl Kanfoush and Axelle Gall.
For Domingo, and an ultra sexy Carmen and a swaggering Escamillo, Francesco Rossi’s film beats this hands down. Neither Faith Esham as Micaela, and particularly Lorin Maazel in charge of the music, are in the same league with their competitors here. My choice for a top rate performance in excellent sound and picture quality is that from the Royal Opera House under Pappano. It takes some beating even if the sets are no match for a Zeffirelli spectacular. However, a sexually alluring Carmen alongside a superbly acted and sung Don José and an arrogant toreador more than compensates (Decca DVD 074 3312 DH).
Typical of the period of this performance, there is no particular concern over which edition is used: the opera comique with spoken dialogues or the use of Ernest Guiraud music for sung recitatives.
Robert J Farr