The Carmen I've been waiting for
Carmen is one of the staples of the operatic repertoire, and yet I’ve come to it rather late. I had my first whiff of it this spring, when I listened to Karajan’s recording on Deutsche Grammaphon (as opposed to his earlier RCA venture). The music was of course brilliant, and the singers were fantastic, but ultimately I found the tempi too slow and the spoken dialogue grating. This account by Solti, on the other hand, is exactly the way I imagined the opera should go. The playing of the London Philharmonic is very atmospheric and he gives them ample room, but never allows the score to start dragging. Moreover, though the musical numbers are connected by spoken dialogue rather than recitative, as in the Karajan, Decca allowed the singers to speak the text themselves, which adds to the believability. The same cast appeared with Solti at Covent Garden, but with Shirley Verrett as Carmen; however, she was never considered for this recording. Instead Teresa Berganza was at first engaged, and when she dropped out, Tatiana Troyanos stepped in. Thankfully for us, she sounds marvelous and is easily the highlight of this set. Her voice is veiled and smoky, hinting at her life in the cigarette factory as well as her sensuality, yet the youthfulness of the character also comes across. It is easy to see why Don José would fall for her, and then be pushed to the edge by her unfaithfulness. Plácido Domingo has what is in my opinion the ideal voice for the young brigadier, and save for the top note in his Flower Song, he offers a wonderful performance. (To be honest, he doesn’t bark it out as terribly as do some tenors, but it is still a long way from the pianissimo that Bizet calls for, which Vickers and Carreras sing in their recordings.) Critics are inclined to lambaste his French, and I did notice him saying “Carmenthita” instead of “Carmençita” at one point, but honestly, how many indigenous French tenors have recorded this role? Kiri te Kanawa fares better as Micaela than one might expect. She sounds young and sweet, her French isn’t bad, and for the most part she is convincing as a commoner. Once she hits her Act Three aria, however, she becomes so focused on beautiful, lyrical outpourings that she ends up sounding more like a nascent Countess than a simple village girl. Wonderful as she is, I would have preferred Freni or Cotrubas. José van Dam repeats his wonderful Escamillo from the Karajan recording and once again the animal magnetism is lacking, but all other elements of the character are firmly in place. Moreover his French is impeccable. As for the supporting cast, its strength can be seen merely in the casting of Moráles, who is sung by no other than Sir Thomas Allen!