Bizet • Carmen

Marilyn Horne; James McCracken; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Children’s Chorus and Manhattan Opera Chorus, Leonard Bernstein conducting
Deutsche Grammophon/Speakers Corner DGG 2709 043
Three 180-gram LPs



by Roy Gregory | February 22, 2015

our first opera has always been a loaded decision and one that, if you are wrong, might make it your last opera too. That has made it a classic question and the center of much debate, but as far as I’m concerned, you could do far, far worse than Bizet’s Carmen. Based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée, it features a plot that is both straightforward and plausible, devoid of operatic artifice, mistaken identity and long-lost brothers or sisters. At heart a tragedy with its players circling to their inevitable doom, it adds drama with its narrative and settings. Desertion, love, loss, jealousy, smuggling, bull-fighting and murder all play their parts. Combine all that with action, rich characters, excitement, and memorable (and in many cases familiar) tunes, and this has to be one of the most accessible operas there is. If you don’t get Carmen, then you probably won’t get opera.

All of which helps explain why Speakers Corner would opt for this work as one of its rare opera reissues. But in turn that raises the question, which performance? The answer is far from simple. First, with just about every major star and label having recorded the work at least once, there are plenty of well-regarded performances to choose from: Karajan on RCA, with Price’s conventional, brooding sexuality; or Beecham on HMV, with the more subtly nuanced and seductive De Los Angeles in the title role; or how about Solti with Troyanos and Domingo, with the subtlest Carmen of all and a fatally weak Don Jose? Then there are the variations in the versions performed. Whilst it’s easy to assume that there’s one definitive score (or urtext) for any work, that’s far from the case, with not just different editions but a host of artistic choices left to the conductor. It gets worse with opera, where production edits are incorporated to ease progress, and Carmen is possibly the worst-case scenario.

The issues center on the question of recitative, those part-spoken, part-sung, part-accompanied passages that are relied upon to advance the action in Grand Opera. But Bizet’s masterpiece was originally commissioned by the Parisian Opéra-Comique, a populist theatre that performer musical plays or operas that interspersed songs with considerable spoken dialog. His inclusion of limited recitative caused stylistic confusion and resentment amongst the audience, while the subject matter, even in diluted form and with a few of its more notorious characters and events removed, hardly leant itself to the venue’s family-friendly reputation. By diluting Mérimée’s lurid original and infiltrating shades of Grand Opera’s formality into a populist arena, Carmen in its original form fell between two firmly entrenched schools and as a result offended almost everyone. To compound the problem, a disastrous premier performance was closely followed by Bizet’s untimely death, at which point the work became a creative free-for-all.

There’s no doubt that Bizet would have replaced the extensive dialog with recitative, an essential step if the work was to be performed outside France, even outside the Opéra-Comique. Instead this was done by his compatriot Giraud, but in the process huge swathes of speech (including considerable character development and additional plot points) were lost and the remainder altered significantly. The result was a diminution of the minor characters and a plot that advanced in a series of sudden jerks. Thus was Bizet’s vision diluted, a situation compounded by the lack of a corrected autograph score from the original performance, so that the composer's true intentions are lost. In 1964, Fritz Oeser set out to create a definitive edition, but included significant sections previously discarded by Bizet himself as well as ignoring many of the composer’s later revisions and amendments. The result was a sprawling, disjointed mess that required significant cuts if it was ever to work on stage, explaining why despite the number of Carmen recordings that exist no two are the same. More recently, sections of spoken dialog have started to reemerge as directors seek to smooth and embellish the plot’s dramatic progress, adding yet another slew of variables to the Carmen mix -- and another set of potential pitfalls for any reissue project. Musical fashion is notoriously fickle, and with three discs, a box and an extravagant full-color libretto to consider, the up-front cost (and associated risk) are considerable.

Leonard Bernstein was no opera aficionado, once stating that Carmen Jones, a motion-picture adaptation of Carmen, was the only opera he’d ever enjoyed. It’s a telling comment that helps explain the creative decisions that influenced the Met’s 1972 production. For Bernstein the problem was that the more you move the creative balance toward the musical, the further you move it from the dramatic, the very thing that makes Carmen so compelling. Perhaps echoing his experience on West Side Story in 1957, he and director Goeran Gentele adopted a more obviously staged version, arguably more akin to a Broadway musical than Grand Opera. Out went the Giraud and Oeser additions, replaced with a structure based on the 1875 Opéra-Comique vocal score (the most complete available original text) with a modified spoken dialog between "songs." The elimination of recitative suited the pair’s dramatic purpose perfectly, allowing more complex emotional and plot development. Here was Carmen as tragedy, in the true Shakespearean sense of the term, the characters' fates sealed from the moment that Carmen flings the flower at Don José’s feet. It’s a shift in perspective that was underlined by the stark staging, muted costumes and, most powerfully of all, Bernstein’s musical direction.

The resulting production, with Marilyn Horne in the title role and James McCracken as Don José, might have lacked star names, but it opened to huge acclaim and was promptly recorded between performances by Deutsche Grammophon. Perhaps the Broadway analogy is overstating the case, but this is a world away from the ponderous (and potentially suffocating) formality of Puccini.

With much of the action set outdoors and outside the law, there is an inevitable earthy naturalism at work that plays to both the characters and the style of presentation. Compared to a Karajan, Bernstein’s reading is (considerably) slower of tempo and overall pace, ratcheting up the tension one notch at a time rather than dumping the opera in your lap like a box of firecrackers. He creates a darker sense of inevitable, impending doom that plays on the tragic rather than simply dramatic nature of the tale. Horne’s singing is occasionally rough and can’t match the sultry, overt sexuality of Leontyne Price or the more multidimensional Victoria De Los Angeles, but then this is much more an ensemble piece than a star vehicle, and in many ways it’s all the better for it. This performance is all about the whole rather than the parts, and as such a little roughness around Carmen’s edges and a stiffness to Don José are entirely in character. The recording might not match the spatial coherence, presence and color of Karajan on RCA, which costs it a point when it comes to sound quality, but it doesn’t stop the result from being vivid and engaging, authentically dramatic and ultimately tragic. It might not be mainstream, but alongside it, more conventional performances can easily lack depth, sounding trite, bombastic and gauche. Bernstein’s direction is perfectly poised throughout: Sublimely delicate in places, dynamically explosive when necessary, it supports the unfolding drama perfectly.

Even by their normally excellent standards, Speakers Corner have done a superb job on this Carmen. Surfaces are ghostly quiet, the outer box is beautifully solid and produced with precision, but it’s the booklet that’s most impressive. It would have been easy to cut corners here, but it is reproduced in all its original glory: heavy stock, gatefolds and beautifully reproduced photography complement the crystal-clear typography in a model example of what makes a perfect libretto.

This Carmen is both a perfect introduction to the piece and opera as a whole, and it is a fascinating alternative for those more familiar with other versions. Exposed to its individuality and the integrity of its artistic vision, you find yourself calling other readings into question, and this is a recording that should be welcomed and enjoyed by opera debutantes and hardened aficionados with a library full of performances alike. Somewhat to my surprise but also considerable pleasure, Bernstein, Horne et al. have quickly become firm favorites in a house that already contains more competing copies of Carmen than it probably should.

© The Audio Beat • Nothing on this site may be reprinted or reused without permission.