Carmen – Opera in four acts to a libretto byHenri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy after the novella by Prosper Mérimée [sung in French]
Carmen – Marina Domashenko
Don José – Andrea Bocelli
Escamillo – Bryn Terfel
Micaëla – Eva Mei
Zuniga – Thierry Felix
Moralès – Jean-Luc Ballestra
Frasquita – Magali Léger
Mercédès – Delphine Haidan
Le Dancaïre – Olivier Lallouette
Le Remendado – Alain Gabriel
Choeur de Radio France
Maîtrise de Radio France
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Recorded 26 June-2 July & 24 October 2005 in Salle Messiaen, Radio France
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: July 2010
CD No: DECCA 475 7646 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 19 minutes
“The world’s most popular tenor sings the world’s most popular opera” announces an adhesive label on the box of this recording. The claim for the public status of “Carmen” is debatable: does it really receive more performances than “La bohème” or “La traviata”? Perhaps that particular claim should just be put down to hype in the current PR-dominated environment.
Consideration should begin with the title role: Historically it has been claimed by both dark, heavy, dramatic mezzos whose home territory is Verdi’s Azucena and Eboli, represented on records by Grace Bumbry, Giulietta Simionato, Irina Arkhipova and Elena Obraztsova, and by lyric voices such as Risë Stevens, Tatiana Troyanos and Teresa Berganza, who each had a Mozartean background. An opera so dominated by the eponymous heroine was bound to be commandeered by sopranos, starting almost 100 years ago with Emmy Destinn on record and continuing through to Anna Caterina Antonacci in the present day, passing Victoria de los Angeles, Leontyne Price, Maria Callas, Anna Moffo and Régine Crespin en route.
For most of that time the version performed and recorded was that with the recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud. Now it is difficult to understand how we could have put up for so long with those great, clonking, bathetic recitatives coming in at the end of each number, especially in the first two acts. That they stem from the Vienna production staged within a few months of the Paris première epitomises the dichotomy in approach between treating the work as a light, elegant French opéra comique and a heavy international melodrama.
Fashion has swung decisively towards the former since the publication of Fritz Oeser’s edition in the 1960s, with its restoration of the spoken dialogue, devalued as it is by Oeser’s inclusion of music Bizet cut during the original Paris rehearsals.And yet … there is a case for regarding Carmen as the first verismo opera. Characters from the criminal underclass, corruption, women smoking and fighting, the flaunting of sexuality and the celebration of sexual licence, increasing violence culminating in bloody death – no wonder the audience at the Opéra Comique in 1875, with expectations of a family show, were bewildered at the overturning of the conventions of the style of opera which shares its name with that theatre. Nevertheless, as Hugh MacDonald points out in a pithy note in the booklet to this set, they must also have been fascinated, their fascination distilled in the magnetism of Prosper Mérimée’s character. What a magnificent source was the novel and how skilfully did Meilhac and Halévy adapt it for operatic purposes.
Marina Domashenko is by now an experienced Carmen and she has developed an individual characterisation. With her low-lying vocal personality the easy route would have been to build on that natural gift and portray Carmen as a hip-swinging man-eating stereotype with lots of leering innuendo. Instead she mixes sexual allure with propriety. In the first Act she does not put all her cards on the table straight away. The ‘Habanera’ is decidedly restrained, only the upward portamento in each verse and the extended pause on the final F sharp containing any suggestion of the siren. The ‘Séguedille’ takes a long time to catch fire, indeed the thing which impresses for much of its duration is the singer’s musicianship, the ease of the divisions, her observance of Bizet’s detailed dynamic markings, and her rendering of the combined accent and staccato markings. But this restraint is calculated. All the while she has been watching the effect on Don José and on his abject submission to her charms she can unleash the main tune in a triumphant forte, crowning it with the high B which she had previously avoided.
Her growing impatience with Jose’s spinelessness is apparent as Act Two proceeds. “Ta ra ta ta, c’est le clarion qui sonne” is waspish but not hysterical; the further bait to attract him, the promise of freedom, is still issued with dignity. Her viscous tone comes into its own in the ‘Card Trio’, the quavers joined together in a legato which is not only musical but also underlines the relentlessness of fate. In the final scene this Carmen lives up to her claim to be truthful, declaring her love for Escamillo with nobility. Where Carmens of the cheap and nasty breed abandon dignity and spit out “Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra” with rasping defiance, she maintains her integrity. Only for her final two utterances “Frappe-moi donc ou laisse-moi passer” and the throwing of the ring in Jose’s face does she lose her poise.
The final scene is virtually bomb-proof but its effect here is certainly threatened by the central aberration of this recording, embodied in the top billing given to the tenor on the packaging, booklet and CDs themselves in a point-size some two-and-a-half times larger than the other principal singers, including the Carmen herself. Andrea Bocelli is highlighted, his voice artificially beefed-up, his tone glamorised, like some of the worst applications of the echo-chamber of old. The ultimate effect, however, is to betray his tendency to scoop and to reveal a gravely edge to the tone from D upwards. The basic quality can be attractive, with vibrancy reminiscent of Franco Corelli, whom Bocelli acknowledges as a teacher, but it is subjected to almost unremitting loudness.
Don Jose’s off-stage approach in Act Two is mishandled. Long before he is supposed to enter he is already in the foreground, indeed giving Carmen a command performance in a stentorian fortissimo. The ‘Flower Song’ begins with a vulgar lunge at the opening F and a delicate diminuendo on the held A flat (“je m’enivrais”) is spoilt by a most unmusical slobbering over the succeeding phrase. Piano and pianissimo markings are ignored. On the positive side, many a better tenor than Bocelli has belted out the climactic B flat and made a meal of the final cadence; at least there is no doubt about his sincerity.
The need for heroic power in the Act Three declaration “Dût-il m’en coûter la vie” is fulfilled; it is a pity that it has been done with artificial aid The final scene is not a contest of equals: throughout it the tenor is privileged and Domashenko goes for the lower options when they sing together. Where for most of the opera one feels Bocelli’s French pronunciation is not bad considering, tolerance wears thin in the concluding pages.The other casting smacks of “Instant Opera”, with big names employed more for marketing reasons than in search of an integrated performance. None of the principals is French-speaking. Eva Mei’s thin, glassy timbre seems to have strayed into the Act One duet out of an Italian bel canto opera; a beat is present in her tone in Micaëla’s aria, though it does not spoil a convincing account.
Bryn Terfel opens the Toreador’s Song hazily, though the clouds part for the refrain and he knows how to render the direction “avec fatuité”. He can be imagined preening himself as he launches “Toréador, en garde” and making a fool of himself with the crude crescendo on the high E. Admittedly he is equipped with just the right sort of bass-baritone for a role which is tricky to cast, but he is surprisingly anonymous in the Act Three duet, in which Escamillo can be depicted as patronising, ironic or contemptuous. Surprisingly Terfel’s range of colours here is largely blank.
The comprimarii are quite a distinguished group and they introduce an element of lightness and wit to counteract the heavyweight treatment of the principals’ work. The Act Two Quintet has more than its fair share of humour. The all-important chorus is recorded in a resonant acoustic that emphasises its many guises and its members sing splendidly.Dialogue is minimalised and both producer and conductor adopt a grand-opera style There are times when the boosting of Bocelli’s voice leads perversely to the orchestra being swamped. It is perhaps an indictment of the whole enterprise that Myung Whun Chung’s conducting is heard at its best in the entr’actes.
Highlights from the recording are also available, which may represent the best bet for those who are curious to hear Domashenko’s interpretation of Carmen, though this is also available on DVD from the 2003 production at the Verona Arena. Otherwise this recording is likely only to satisfy Bocelli fans. They have been kept waiting for it for nearly five years.