Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen - Opera in four acts [160:04]
Carmen - Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo); Don José - Marcus Haddock (tenor); Escamillo - Laurent Naouri (baritone); Micaëla - Lisa Milne; Frasquita - Mary Hegarty (soprano); Moralès - Hans Voschezang (baritone); Zuniga - Jonathan Best (bass-baritone); Mercédès - Christine Rice (mezzo); Le Dancaïre - Quentin Hayes (baritone); Lilas Pastia - Anthony Wise; Le Remendado - Colin Judson (tenor); Le Guide - Franck Lopez (baritone)
The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Philippe Jordan
rec. Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, July and August 2002
synopsis, libretto and translation included
GLYNDEBOURNE GFOCD 016-02 [3 CDs: 52:24 + 47:55 + 59:45]
For one of the most popular of operas, live or on disc, Carmen is surprisingly difficult to bring off successfully. Getting the tone and atmosphere right, with singing and playing that meet Bizet’s very varied demands is a test that is met only rarely. What that tone and atmosphere should be is itself not easily determined. Parts, especially the end, approach the full-out drama of what became verismo, but much of the opera is more closely related to an earlier French tradition deriving from the works of Boieldieu and Auber. A good performance needs to be able to characterise these and other aspects very precisely whilst somehow managing to retain an overall unity. Put like that it may seem an impossible task, but it is perhaps no more difficult than that of the director of any of Shakespeare’s tragedies. In Auden’s words, “even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree”. The smugglers in the two central acts have some interest in what happens to Carmen and Don José, but their chief concern is with the successful conclusion of their smuggling expedition. A good production will bring both of these groups into clear focus, as well as a flavour of Don José’s rural background which we hear about in Michaela’s talk of his mother.
This set is apparently derived from various performances of a new production by David McVicar. A DVD of that production is already available made at a single performance in August of that season but I have been unable to compare that with the present composite version. There are however few moments in the present set when the listener might suspect a join between two performances, and overall there is a very real feeling of a drama unfolding. In itself that is certainly a virtue but on this occasion it brings with it the disadvantage of much stage noise, at times even drowning the music. This may be exciting enough on the first time of listening but I can well imagine that for some listeners the very harmful effect on, for example, the children’s chorus in Act 1 might put the whole set beyond endurance. That would be a pity as the unwanted sounds seem to get fewer as the performance continues, or perhaps by the end I had simply stopped bothering about them . One very positive effect of the set deriving from live performances is on the delivery of the dialogue. It is spoken with a proper regard for its place in the drama, adding to the overall effect rather than simply being an interlude between the sung portions of the work as it seems in some of those studio recorded sets which opt for dialogue rather than the recitatives composed after Bizet’s death by Ernest Guiraud for performances in Vienna. Many, possibly most, productions nowadays prefer to use dialogue but although in principle this is a right decision it is only effective where the singers can speak it convincingly. That is certainly the case here, and they make the most of the additional information and characterisation that the use of dialogue offers, bringing it much closer to the spirit of the original novella by Prosper Mérimée. The edition of the music used was prepared specially for this production and omits many of the strange additions and changes included in the Oeser version used in many modern productions.
The opera gets off to a very good start with an exciting and alert performance of the Prélude from the London Philharmonic under Philippe Jordan. Indeed throughout the opera the listener is constantly drawn to their very detailed characterisation of the music, with flexible and subtle phrasing. Vocally it is the women who make the most impact. Anne Sofie von Otter may not be the most obvious choice of singer as Carmen, but it is that lack of obviousness in her approach which makes her such a good choice. She makes Carmen pure caprice, not so much earthy as aerial, flitting from what are to her attractive man to attractive man and from mood to mood. She sings with great variety of tone and manner, including moments of great beauty, something found all too rarely in many Carmens. Lisa Milne rightly makes Micaëla a more straightforward character, but she too sings with great beauty of tone and care over phrasing. Don José is a notoriously difficult role, with tenors tending to sound either like coarse bullies or wimps. Marcus Haddock makes a good attempt at a middle way but too often there is a lack of variety and his tone tends to coarseness. Although the dialogue tells much of the previous history of the character as a village boy intended for the priesthood there is little sense of that in Marcus Haddock’s characterisation. Reservations must be made about Laurent Naouri’s Escamillo, sung idiomatically but with a somewhat worn tone. The many “minor” roles which add so much to the opera are all well taken.
As usual Glyndebourne have presented the set in style, in hard-backed booklet containing a perceptive introduction and synopsis by Rodney Milnes and the libretto and English translation. The dialogue as printed differs in part to what is spoken but not to a significant degree. There are also some fine photographs of the production. All in all this is a fine recording of the opera. Apart from the stage noises and a dull Don José almost everything is right about it, and this is a set that does real justice to the vitality, variety and sheer inventiveness of the opera.
John Sheppard
Does real justice to the vitality, variety and sheer inventiveness of this opera. 
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