Classicalite's Five Best: 'Carmen' Recordings

By James Inverne on Jul 17, 2013 02:01 AM EDT

If it's not the most popular opera of all time, then it's certainly in the Top Five, which is ironic because Georges Bizet's melodrama was a flop at its première. But the French composer's homage to Italian opera had such an influence back in Italy that it spurred a whole movement: verismo, operas intended to catch the pain, the jealousies and passions, the sheer emotional messiness of real life.

Thing is, Carmen is actually quite messy, itself. Not in terms of structure, there it's almost perfectly balanced (with only Carmen's and Micaëla's third act arias seeming slightly out of place in my, probably unpopular, opinion). But, stylistically, it can be hard to know where to pitch it. A conductor and cast can go all out with blood-and-guts verismo, rip their hearts out on stage, or they can find the historical elegance of French opera traditions--both are embedded within the opera. It gives a conundrum when it comes to casting, too. The second half demands big guns, especially in that take-me-or-die final scene. But the first half actually calls out for, again, the lithe voices of France.

So, how to get around all of this? It's surprising that more conductors don't try for a lighter, chamber-like texture in the orchestra. Instead, the job of bringing France and Italy together is usually down to the vocalists--and works best when one is blessed with those rare beasts that can surmount both styles, ramping up from elegance to beefiness. But they are almost non-existent, among tenors for instance, one is really talking Georges Thill, Nicolai Gedda, maybe Roberto Alagna and, err, that's about it.

What it means is that no collection is complete with only one recording. Which makes its fun. Here, then, are Classicalite's five best Carmen recordings. Feel free to seek out and enjoy any two of them. Or three:

Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1990)

The finest of all Carmens has Tatiana Troyanos alternately vulnerable and imperious as the gypsy with the mostess, but one who always remains a fully fleshed-out character. You start to understand where it all may be coming from. Plácido Domingo is lyrically ardent and then dramatically furious as Don José, with José van Dam an Escamilio who really uses the text and Kiri Te Kanwa a warm-voiced Micaëla. Solti's conducting ebbs and flows organically, with the naturalness of sudden passions, in what may be his finest opera recording.

Herbert von Karajan (RCA Victor, 1963)

A more controversial choice, this. It uses the (rightly) unfashionable recitatives by Ernest Guiraud rather than the spoken dialogue, and Karajan could be over-deliberate. But the glamorous, Saturday night at the Met cast are thrilling, and the whole thing has the air of one heck of a night at the theater. Put together Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Robert Merrill and Mirella Freni and, well, that's gonna happen.

Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI, 1959)

He was of course British, but Beecham's conducting has something slightly Francophone about it, crisp and propulsive without ever pushing too hard. Casting against type with the feminine Victoria de los Ángeles as Carmen (she's also Beecham's wonderfully fragile Boheme Mimi) and having Nicolai Gedda, a tenor who could perfectly match scale to the demands of the moment more than most others, only reinforces that impression.

Michel Plasson (EMI, 2003)

Back in the nineties and the noughties, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu were opera's golden couple and, with his flexible tenor always at its best in French rep, and her outsize operatic personality, Carmen would seem the perfect vehicle. So it proves.

Antonio Pappano (Decca DVD, 2008)

Ana Caterina Antonnacci has always been the great secret of opera fans--a brilliant soprano bursting with charisma and a terrific actress. Less fêted than some of her contemporaries, she's one of the Carmens of her generation. The big surprise here, even to opera buffs at the time, was Jonas Kaufmann, newly emerged as the baritonal, animalistic tenor we all know and adore today. The two of them, and Pappano generating yet more electricity in the Covent Garden pit, strike sparks.

And one to avoid...

Seiji Ozawa (Philips, 1989)

Didn't work. Too heavy, too thick, none of the singers at their best (though Neil Shicoff is still a fine Don José). Jessye Norman was born to not play Carmen. Didn't work, didn't work, didn't work.

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TagsJames Inverne, Classicalite's Five Best, Carmen, Sir Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, Sir Thomas Beecham, Michel Plasson, Antonio Pappano, seiji ozawa, Marina Berlusconi

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