With all the video versions of Bizet’s “Carmen” available, there is no excuse for the Arena di Verona 2014 version on a BelAir DVD. It is the same Zeffirelli production that is still available on a TDK video, with all its excesses, constant crowd movement, groups of dancers forever going into their routines, and lots of horses.
The Don Jose (Carlo Ventre) and Carmen (Ekaterina Semenchuk) are not romantic looking, are not especially good actors, and have not particularly spectacular voices. Even the Escamillo (Carlos Alvarez) has little stage presence, but Irina Lungu is an attractive Micaela. The best voice in the cast is that of Seung Pil Choi as Zuniga. The children’s chorus is charmless.
And why couldn’t the children, as well as some of the soloists, be told that a final “e” in French is pronounced “eh” and not “ay” as in Italian? So “garde” is “gar-deh” and not “gar-day.” A small point, but annoying when more attention is paid to spectacle than the language of the text.
Other details are superfluous. This is a “Carmen” to avoid.
Not only are there many audio recordings of Bizet’s “Carmen” to choose from, but the opera itself exists in different versions. I grew up with the “grand opera” version in which the original spoken dialogue had been turned to sung recitative by Bizet’s pupil Guiraud. In 1972, at the Metropolitan Opera, Leonard Bernstein put together a production based on the 1875 Opera Comique original (with spoken dialogue) but with his own variations here and there. The critics were divided over the results.
Well, the audio half of those results was preserved on a three-LP set with the same cast. And what is I think the second CD transfer of this recording has been released in a Pentatone set with two discs and a complete libretto (unusual for a reissue of an opera). It is certainly worth the hearing, although it might not be the first choice for those wishing to own just one “Carmen.”
Bernstein’s very slow tempos, especially for Carmen’s arias, might be a put-off for many listeners (as it is for me). His using an alternative setting for the counterpoint of the bullfight offstage and the death of Carmen onstage is quite different from the one heard in every other production—but not necessarily not as good. Also the spoken dialogue reveals a lack of coaching in French pronunciation in most of the cast.
However, the big plus is that the recording was made after this cast had the experience of performing on stage; and the dramatic urgency shows through in a way seldom heard in a recording rehearsed and made in a studio.
The Big Star here is Marilyn Horne, who has her Carmen down pat. James McCracken has that Wagnerian tenor voice that works for the passionate Don Jose, while Tom Krause is a formidable Escamillo—although he lacks that sexiness that might attract the ladies. Adriana Maliponte as the innocent Micaela is a good foil for the gypsy temptress. The secondary parts of Carmen’s gypsy friends gain much by the spoken dialogue.
Pentatone has packaged this set as a small book with the discs in sleeves behind the front and back cover and some introductory notes, followed by the libretto.
A good modern recording is the one with Placido Domingo and Tatiana Troyanos, conducted by Georg Solti. And although I grew up with the RCA Victor set with Rise Stevens and Jan Peerce (1951), I still prefer the 1950 set with Raoul Jobin and Solange Michel, with members of the Opera Comique. The pacing is quick, the humor is intact, and the French is perfect in both enunciation and spirit.
Note: The first nominally complete recording of “Carmen” was made in 1908–in German!
After hearing “Carmen” on LPs and then CDs and then watching it on DVDs and in live performances, something finally popped into my mind. Does Carmen sing the Habanera EVERY DAY during the break from the cigarette factory?
There is no doubt that the entire male population of Seville tries its luck with her the moment she appears and that the song is an answer to the crowd. But what should motivate her on that particular day to proclaim her Gypsy Woman’s Manifesto?
Reply: This is only an opera and one does not ask questions like that. The character needs an entrance aria and Bizet gives her a good one. That is all we need to know.
Response: Yes, the work might be an opera but it is also a DRAMA. It is one of the earliest operas that looks at and treats life realistically. These are supposed to be real people and it is up to the Director to make them seem real. If she sings that long song at that moment, there must be some motivation for it.
Reply: There is a motivation. You said so yourself. She is responding to the amorous male chorus.
Response: I thought I covered that. They woo her every day. But why respond on this particular day? What is new that day?
Those familiar with the opera know that Don Jose has just joined the Seville regiment and Carmen sees him for the first time. If I were directing, I would play it this way. Don Jose is busy fixing his firing pin and does not see her. She sees him. Bingo! Her next temporary lover.
Even more interesting would be: Bingo! The man who is going to kill her. Since the Fate motif has just been played upon her entrance, this is a distinct possibility. She is turned on by the danger.
In either case, how to get his attention? Ah, pretend to be addressing the crowd but aim it all at the handsome soldier.
She sings the first stanza but it doesn’t work. Or perhaps it does but Don Jose pretends not to hear or understand what he clearly does hear. So she becomes bolder. She sings the second stanza directly to him, leaving no doubt to any one as to her intentions. In this way, not only is the song as a whole motivated but even the second stanza alone serves a DRAMATIC purpose–as well as revealing not only her character but her methods.
In fact, I would have her coworkers nudge each other with knowing nods and winks. They certain know what is going on. So should the audience.
And thus can a warhorse of an aria become a telling dramatic event.
Reply: Isn’t that exactly what happens in “La Boheme” when Musetta wins back Marcello with her waltz song?
Response: Yes. Puccini’s librettist knew how to use a song to forward the plot. Bizet’s (I feel) merely put in an entrance number. It is up to the Director to coin gold from the ordinary.
In the next act, we see Escamillo responding to the crowd’s acclaim with his “Toreador Song.” Being a conceited and shallow superstar, his motivation is obvious. He loves being admired and reminds his fans about all the things he has done to be admired. I can believe he DOES sing this song at the drop of a hat whenever he thinks the crowd will appreciate it. However, while singing his aria this time, he notices Carmen. And it is always played on stage that the “amours” at the end of his second stanza are directed only at her, while she repeats them only to him.
Here, only the most obtuse Director would ignore the obvious and treat it as just another aria.
And speaking of “La Boheme,” every single number in that all-too-short gem helps advance the plot as well as revealing character. Oh yes, it has been mentioned that Colline’s farewell to his overcoat seems an interpolation; but it is certainly motivated by the circumstances and does show us quite a bit about Colline’s character—not to mention that of his overcoat!
It is sobering to recall that the earliest musicals scarcely had ANY songs that were dramatically motivated at that moment other than the justification that the character was expressing an emotion concerning events at that moment. Early opera is loaded with this kind of arias, because it was the purpose of an aria back then simply to express a single emotion.
When faced with a “realistic” or “verismo” work from about 1870 on, a Director must find dramatic reasons for nearly every musical moment. WHY is this character singing this particular aria at this moment? What does it accomplish? (That last question might prove unsolvable for many arias.) What new information does it reveal about the character?
This is not easy. But many directors of local opera groups or even professional companies might want to consider this question seriously before mounting yet another humdrum production. But for now, give Carmen a break!