Carmen Opéra-Comique in four acts
CHANDOS CHAN 3091 (2 CDs) [15523. Sung in David Parrys English translation]
Carmen Patricia Bardon
Don José Julian Gavin
Micaëla Mary Plazas
Escamillo Garry Magee
Frasquita Mary Hegarty
Mercédès Sally Harrison
Moralès Toby Stafford-Allen
Zuniga Nicholas Garrett
La Dancaïre Peter Wedd
Le Remendado Mark Le Brocq
Fruitseller Clare McCaldin
Gypsy Paul Parfitt
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
New London Childrens Choir
Recorded August-September 2002, Colosseum, Watford
EMI 5 57434 2 (3 CDs) 
Carmen Angela Gheorghiu
Don José Roberto Alagna
Micaëla Inva Mula
Escamillo Thomas Hampson
Frasquita Elizabeth Vidal
Mercédès Isabelle Cals
Moralès Ludovic Tézier
Zuniga Nicolas Cavallier
La Dancaïre Nicolas Rivenq
Le Remendado Yann Beuron
Fruitseller Anne Gotkovsky
Gypsy Didier Chevallier
La Lauzeta, Choeur denfants de Toulouse
Choeur “Les Éléments”
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
Recorded February-March 2002, Halle aux Grains, Toulouse
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: See below
The fundamental question which has to be faced when preparing a performance of Carmen is which edition should be used. As is generally known, Bizet did not leave a definitive version, but it is nowadays accepted that Bizet’s original conception as an opéra-comique should be performed – that is with spoken dialogue between the musical sections. It is, therefore, inexplicable as to why EMI, presumably with Michel Plasson’s compliance, should have preferred to revert to the recitatives composed not by Bizet but by Ernest Guiraud.
This certainly used to be the way the opera was performed (and recorded) until the intervention of scholars who revealed Bizet’s original intentions. This is not the place for a prolonged dissertation on the subject; suffice it to say that the recitatives destroy Bizet’s carefully calculated scheme whereby as the drama becomes more serious, and ultimately tragic, so the quantity of dialogue decreases until in the final act there is barely a line of spoken text. Furthermore, the minor characters are fleshed out in the dialogue in a way not even attempted by Guiraud. EMI’s booklet note attempt earnest justifications for the inclusion of recitative on the grounds that Bizet had planned to write some himself for a production in Vienna. But the fact remains that he didn’t, and we cannot ultimately know what the composer would have done had he recast his opéra-comique into what might be termed, for all intents and purposes, ’grand opera’.
All credit, then, to David Parry and the Chandos team, for this “Opera in English” production, who have opted for the dialogue, which has the effect of engaging us much more with the intricacies of the drama and the development of the characters. With Guiraud, there is a feeling of ’stopping and starting’ whenever Bizet’s numbers conclude and the recitatives begin in a style that generally does not match Bizet’s wit and sparkle.
However, issues of recitatives and editions will probably not be the prime consideration for potential purchasers of EMI’s release. Undoubtedly, the biggest selling point will be the presence of the Gheorghiu and Alagna (husband and wife of course) and one can say with some confidence that their admirers will not be disappointed.
Angela Gheorghiu has not sung the role of Carmen on stage, as yet, but she already displays a good sense of character, and although a soprano rather than Bizet’s specified mezzo, her smoky-toned voice makes her in some ways ideal – timbre-wise – for this part. No mere hip-swaying gypsy she, rather a person who at the outset of the opera is already aware of the dark fate in store for her. And here is the potential problem, for if Carmen is already doom-laden at the start, then she cannot develop into the tragic creature of the final scene. In short, I find Gheorghiu lacking a sense of lightness, sparkle, fun – call it what you will – in Carmen’s initial scenes. She and EMI, however, have included Bizet’s first version of Carmen’s entrance (in addition to what later became the Habanera) which is certainly interesting to hear. As ever, the composer’s final thoughts are preferable and the track should have been placed as a supplement, insteadof being heard immediately after the Habanera where, dramatically, it makes no sense whatever.
Roberto Alagna, too, is rather doleful on first appearance. Don José should not really sound so hangdog when reminiscing about his mother in the Act One duet with Micaëla, here a tremulous Inva Mula sounding too mature for the part of the innocent young country girl.
Thomas Hampson suggests the preening, self-satisfied bullfighter to a tee. Indeed his Escamillo is one of the most successful on disc since the well-nigh-definitive José van Dam for Solti and Karajan. This is a difficult part to cast, given its wide-ranging tessitura and Bizet’s hard to realise direction for the ’Toreador Song’ – ’Con fatuité’. But Hampson makes light of any obstacles and makes the character his own.
On EMI the minor characters are strongly cast. I particularly enjoyed the pert and perky contribution of Elizabeth Vidal as Frasquita. She brings real verse and sparkle to the Act Two quintet and she and Isabelle Cals work as a very effective pair. In the card-reading trio, Gheorghiu comes into her own, with a real sense of brooding and tragic foreboding, most poignantly contrasting with the inane chatter of her friends.
In their scenes together, this Carmen is almost contemptuously playful with her José, especially in their second act encounter. When he announces his intention to return to the barracks, her scorn is quite venomous. He responds with a touching and heartfelt Flower Song that is, thankfully, not over-indulgent and touches the right note of pathos without descending into self-pity.
Their final scene is absolutely gripping, with Alagna suggesting real despair and Gheorghiu resolute and defiant. Here is a couple at the end of their tethers – it is an emotionally wrenchingperformance, although the sparks which fly between Agnes Baltsa and José Carreras under Karajan’s burning direction on DG take the characters onto a level where one can well understand why some commentators consider Carmen’ to be the first ’verismo’ opera.
Mention of the conducting compels one to admit that Michel Plasson does not match that of his most distinguished predecessors on disc. He is purposeful and careful, but the music rarely tingles or ignites in the way it should. The final scene of Act Two, for instance, should brim and bristle with vitality and animation; Plasson is merely reasonably fast. He is at his best in the gentler sections; the José/Micaëla duet and the latter’s aria are most sensitively handled and the Toulouse CapitolOrchestra play well for him though, in direct comparison, thePhilharmonia Orchestra for Chandos is better.
Texturally, some interesting choices have been made. Plasson includes the scene for Moralès and chorus that precedes the children’s march in Act One. One can well see why Bizet cut this, since it delays the action, but it is intriguing to hear. The end of Act Three, with the duel and duet for José and Escamillo is a problematic passage which convinces in neither of the present versions, EMI’s being too short and that on Chandos too protracted.
The sound on Chandos is preferable to the somewhat recessed picture on EMI where there are one or two alarming and sudden changes of perspective. On Chandos, everything is slightly more ’up-front’, with a consequent gain in the immediacy of the action. David Parry’s conducting is more alert than that of Plasson’s and the more energetic scenes such as the girls’ fight in Act One and the procession in Act four are more alive and engaging. He has the benefit of the Philharmonia, which impresses immediately in the Prélude, with the swagger of the trombones being particularly striking.
Like the EMI set, the minor characters are very well cast, and the use of the dialogue allows their personalities to emerge in a much more positive way. Garry Magee is a macho bullfighter, and whilst he doesn’t quite convey the suavity of Escamillo as Hampson does, he is nevertheless convincing in his own terms. I like Julian Gavin’s bright-eyed José very much. His character develops noticeably over the course of the opera – he plainly has never met a Carmen before – from a wide-eyed mother’s boy to the desperado of the final duet.
Like her EMI counterpart, Mary Plazas is not terribly convincing as a young and innocent-sounding Micaëla, though she sings her big aria appealingly enough.
I’m afraid the biggest drawback on Chandos is Patricia Bardon’s portrayal of Carmen, which does not transfer particularly well to disc. Her dark-hued voice is appropriate for the role, but her vibrato-laden tone does not always make for the most ingratiating listening and some of her high notes are not at all attractive. Rather like Gheorghiu, she is too dour at the start, but unlike her, does not plumb the tragic depths of the character.
So it is difficult to commend a Carmen without a Carmen with whom one can engage, in spite of the other benefits of the Chandos set, not the least of which is the excellent translation enabling one to become really absorbed in the story and the people who populate it. Those with a requirement for an English-language Carmen need not hesitate.
Neither of these sets is going to displace existing recommendations from an already extensive Carmen discography. Plainly there will be favourite singers from some recordings and conductors from others. Like the opera itself, there is no one definitive version and although the presence of the recitatives on EMI is, for me, an impediment to the enjoyment of Bizet’s miraculous creation as a whole, the interaction between Alagna and Gheorghiu is something special and not to be passed by.