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Georges BIZET (1838-1870)
Carmen (1875) [169:18]
Chorus - Choeurs de l'Opéra de Paris
Carmen - Agnes Baltsa (mezzosoprano)
Don José - José Carreras (tenor)
Micaëla - Katia Ricciarelli (soprano)
Escamillo - José van Dam (bass-baritone)
Frasquita - Christine Barbaux (soprano)
Mercédès - Jane Berbié (mezzosoprano)
Le Dancaïre - Gino Quilico (baritone)
Le Remendado - Heinz Zednik (tenor)
Moralès - Mikael Melbye (baritone)
Zuninga - Alexander Malta (bass)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1982, Philharmonie, Berlin. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4100882 [3 CDs: 169:18]

Karajan clearly liked Carmen; he conducted it numerous times throughout his career and made two studio recordings almost twenty years apart; this is the second of them. Neither is especially “Gallic” in character, being mostly international rather than French in cast, but Carmen is surely now global property and while it is revealing to hear a specifically French performance such as the 1950 studio recording conducted by Cluytens, or a recording at least more French in style, such as Beecham’s famous 1958-9 Carmen with Victoria de los Angeles, or Callas in 1964, there is surely room for the interpretations of artists of the calibre assembled here. Critic Rodney Milnes dubbed Karajan’s first studio recording from Vienna “no more French than the Ringstrasse” and it is true that in addition to its lack of true gallic ambiance Franco Corelli’s battle with the language presents an insurmountable obstacle to some people’s enjoyment of it, but in truth, Domingo’s French is hardly idiomatic in the excellent film track recording conducted by Maazel in 1983 and I always think that as the anti-hero is in any case Spanish, a Hispanic accent is no great barrier – and that applies to Carreras here.

“Biarritz” French is inevitable unless native speakers are employed; the return to the original spoken dialogue rather than Guiraud’s recitatives poses additional problems, in that for some reason producers almost never seem to manage a credible match between the non-French singers and the French actors’ voices – and so it proves here. It is noticeable what benefit is conferred by having a francophone such as José van Dam both sing and speak Escamillo. A final moan: the Schöneberg Boys’ Choir is unaccountably weak and under the note – not that it matters much but they have some rousing urchin music which should be sung more robustly than they manage.

Otherwise, much about this recording is admirable, down to an elegant and attractive Moralès from a singer of whom I had never before heard and have not since. Baltsa has a such a smoky, sexy, sultry mezzo – just right unless you want the super-restrained “I’m-not-a-slut-but-a-real-lady” approach from the likes of Teresa Berganza. Her gutsy demeanour is similar to that of fellow-Greek Maria Callas. Ricciarelli is a bit limp as Micaëla, with pulsing high notes and an effete tone but is quite effective as a foil to Baltsa, Carreras is still in very good voice, with little of the strain or bleat which later appeared, and he sings most feelingly; he executes a lovely soft B flat on “une chose a toi” in the “Flower song” and makes a fine job of the final ten minutes, suggesting total desperation while remaining vocally secure. He might already have been on the road to vocal damage by undertaking roles a size too large for his lovely lyric tenor but that is not yet apparent here. Van Dam sang Escamillo literally scores of times and was long one of the best exponents of that flashiest of roles. Being a bass-baritone with a good upper extension, he has no trouble with the wide tessitura and he is superb here: swaggering, secure and incisive of tone, with ringing top notes.

Karajan’s conducting is rather leisurely and occasionally lacking élan but he builds “Les tringles des sistres” beautifully to a thrilling climax.

In brief, despite some drawbacks, this is a much better account than some assert of an opera that has never had a perfect recording.

Ralph Moore

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