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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen - opéra-comique in four acts (1875)
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after the story by Prosper Mérimée
Carmen - Solange Michel (sop)
Don José - Raoul Jobin (tenor)
Escamillo - Michel Dens (baritone)
Micaëla - Martha Angelici (sop)
Frasquita - Germaine Chellet (sop)
Mercédès - Raymonde Notti (sop)
Zuniga - Xavier Smati (bass)
Moralès - Julian Thirache (baritone)
El Dancairo - Jean Vieuille (baritone)
El Remendado - Frédéric Leprin (tenor)
Lillas Pastia - Arschodt
Henri Janin, Chorus Master
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, Paris/André Cluytens
Recorded 6-9 September, 1950 at the Champs-Élysée Theatre, Paris. mono ADD
First issued on Columbia 33 FCX 101-103
Naxos Great Opera Recordings
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110238-39 [2CDs: 78.17+51.46]

Carmen must surely rank as one of the world’s favourite operas and deservedly so. Despite its shaky beginnings (its provocative aspects and promiscuous subtexts discomfited nineteenth century audiences) it was by no means the dismal failure at inception that some musicologists insist. In fact, by the time the centenary of Bizet’s birth was celebrated in Paris in 1938, the Opéra-Comique had given its 2,271st performance and by 1959 it had been played there more than 3,000 times.

A popular opera, then and with no shortage of available recordings in the current catalogue. The cast-lists read like a `Who’s Who’ of the twentieth century operatic stage: Callas, de los Angeles, Baltsa, Horne, Berganza and Leontyne Price to name just a handful of the title role singers. The Don Josés occupy a scarcely less celestial realm: Domingo, Gedda, Corelli and so the list goes on. On the podium, top flight conductors abound. All the greats are there from Beecham to Karajan, with Bernstein, Abbado and Prêtre thrown in for good measure.

What, then, does Belgian conductor André Cluytens and his French cast have to offer? They could not be considered quite household names, after all. Well, quite a lot as it happens. From the opening bars of the famous overture, the opera leaps from the page and arrests your attention. As with other offerings in this Naxos Historical series, a French cast, orchestra and chorus serve up a real Gallic feast. This is a nostalgic reminder of how the French répertoire used to sound before the advent of the imperialistic, whipcrack international conductor and the jetset pantheon of operatic stars. No tortured syntax and dodgy accenting here. French works in the hands of French singers: no finer combination surely exists.

Firstly a note on the version used. Ernest Guiraud’s recitatives, composed for the 1875 Viennese première, have been discarded and instead Bizet’s original passages of dialogue have been restored, giving a greater directness and sense of immediacy. The actual singers also speak these linking pieces (as opposed to actors brought in specifically, as on some recordings) which is most satisfying, especially given the point already made regarding the value of the indigenous speaking voice.

Solange Michel is a bewitching Carmen, every inch the gypsy siren and in her characterisation summoning up aurally the femme fatale of Mérimée’s novella, a flower clenched between her teeth and walking "with the movement of a thoroughbred filly from the Cordova stud". Hers is a beguiling, open tone and she is fully equal to the seductive tasks that lie ahead of her. The top notes are easily reached (in most cases flung off with an enviable nonchalance) and there is a refreshing lack of vocal idiosyncrasies. It is in some ways unsurprising to read that her career lasted well into her 60s as her voice sounds carefully husbanded (living off the interest not the capital, as one conductor famously remarked) without ever compromising commitment to her art. Her voice is not a static one, but instead conveys passion and movement (she was, apparently, a gifted actress and her acting accomplishments can be readily sensed through her vocal legacy alone).

She is, as already noted, pitched up against the greats in this role. So how does she fare against a leviathan of an adversary like Callas? I expected Michel to be slaughtered in battle, but while lacking the sheer sense of presence only a Callas could ever really embody, I found that Michel offered a different sidelight on Carmen. I compared her against Callas in the famed Habañera and Séguedille: Callas is all flashing eyes and ravenous tigress; Michel tempts and truly seduces in a manner which sounds completely innate, a voice filled with mystery calling us to be helplessly dashed on the rocks. Of course, for Callas these arias became a touchstone (though, oddly, she never sang the rôle on stage) and in the Séguedille the distinctive cowl on her voice adds a tangible sense of menace which few others achieve. Here the notion of seduction falls away, replaced by a sense of coercion: one is taken by the scruff of the neck and forced into submission. Callas is also the far greater tragédienne but, in the set under review, Michel’s way with Carmen works in the overall spirit of the interpretation. Callas was a force of nature, with whom few could reasonably do battle. Her 1964 recording shows this as her fellow singers all pale in her presence.

Michel senses - and portrays - the true, fatalistic character of the gypsy nowhere more so than in the Act III card scene when, sensitively supported by Cluytens, she evokes a "calm acceptance of the inevitable" as Alan Blyth puts it, as card after card predicts love intertwined with death. It is not an easy mood to capture: a heady mixture of wilful hedonism and primitive superstition. Hers, though, is not a one-dimensional representation and she manages to inject a wonderfully wounding sneer into her voice as she bids Don José to return home to his mother at the end of Act III, following Michaëla’s entreaties ("Go, go with her! You’d do well; our work is not for you").

Jobin’s Don José grabs the attention effectively. His ringing tone reveals varied tone colours, though often some of the score’s myriad subtleties are lost in the softer passages. He does have a tendency towards stridency on occasion and the irony is missing from his voice after his dagger fight with Escamillo at the conclusion of Act III. In the fabled Flower Song [Disc 1, track 21] his is a wonderfully committed sound and when he sings "je ne sentais qu’un seul désir…un seul espoir: te revoir, Carmen, te revoir!" (I feel but one desire…one hope: to see you again, Carmen, to see you again!") every word is utterly believable and imbued with credible passion. An occasional hardness of tone in the exclamatory passages weighs light in the balance against commitment of this order. Listen as, at the end of the third Act [Disc 2, track 8, 3’30"], he declares to Carmen that though he goes to tend his dying mother, their fates are ineluctably interwoven and they are destined to be re-united. "Sois contente, je pars, mais nous nous reverrons!" he sings, the words heavy with portent and foreshadowing that final, fatal assignation outside the bullring. The excitement is made all the more visceral as the orchestra is, at this point, set aflame by Cluytens.

Escamillo is not the usual cardboard cut-out that has often made his way onto disc. Dens’ lyric baritone is suitably testosterone-fuelled, bringing the necessary swagger and machismo to the rôle. He effects a taunting quality in the voice as he needles Don José in the third Act, but his voice is suffused with tenderness as he takes his leave of Carmen "Si tu m’aimes Carmen, tu pourras, toute à l’heure, être fière de moi" (If you love me Carmen, soon you can be proud of me) at the very gates of the Plaza de Toros, as the opera reaches its bloody dénouement.

The Micaëla of Martha Angelici is also predictably fine, given that she went on to sing this rôle under Karajan at La Scala. She affects a touching simplicity in her Act I duo with Don José ("Parle-moi de ma mère", Disc 1, track 8) as she brings him news from his mother and home village: beautifully paced and evocative. She is also palpably frightened as she calls upon God’s protection on entering the smugglers’ lair in Act III (Disc 2, track 6), her voice trembling with apprehension. Later in the same Act, she provides a sole voice of reason and honour - her phrases superbly moulded - as she implores Don José to return home to his dying mother, amid the swirling maelstrom of passion and conflict.

The chorus of the Opéra-Comique provide the gypsy brigands and what a spirited lot they are! They make a compelling contribution and they are a real credit to the talents of chorus master, Henri Janin. They never place a foot wrong throughout the opera and are very convincing in the scenes of tumult, such as in the fracas that follows Carmen’s knife-wielding episode in the cigarette factory in Act I (Disc 1, track 9). Their contribution to the wonderful ensemble pieces as in Act III’s "Quant au douanier, c’est notre affaire" (Disc 2, track 5) is thrilling. Cluytens imbues the passage with real rhythmic vigour - the orchestra here adopting a delicious swagger - and the sound of the five superbly blended voices, together with chorus, soaring above the orchestra is very thrilling indeed.

And so to Cluytens and the orchestra. Well here was a very fine and sadly historically undervalued conductor. Those collectors who remember his superb Pastoral symphony from his cycle with the BPO from the late 1950s, will no doubt agree. From the outset here he conjures up a sound-world evoking most believably the sun-drenched Andalusian vistas. He takes the score at quite a clip, it is true to say, but the sense of momentum and excitement he creates quickens the pulse at all the right points. In the overture itself, the first appearance of the "fate motif" (Disc 1, track 1, 2’ 12") is ominous and its baleful presence is felt, periodically, throughout the work. He and the orchestra bring plenty of Spanish fire to the recording (sample the Act IV March of the Toreadors (Disc 2, track 11) where the sound is whipped up to unbearable levels). In contrast, he can also bring out great subtlety from the score in his scrupulous observance of Bizet’s markings. In the flute solo dominated prelude to Act III there are echoes of Debussy’s languorous and intoxicating Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

I turned to Karajan’s digital recording (Deutsche Grammophon, 1982) for a test comparison. I sampled the Entr’acte to Act II (Disc 1, track 13) in which the music speaks of the world of arms Don José is to forsake if he is to fall for the insouciant charms of Carmen. Here Karajan, surprisingly, was rather superficial - the Berliners painting a fiercely militaristic scene with a strident, and rather charmless, march rhythm. Cluytens was far more subtle to my ears, coaxing from his orchestra a much more rounded and three dimensional sound mixing the military world and the opposing one of physical desire.

I was surprised to read Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor (The Record Guide, Collins, 1955) castigate Cluytens for his headlong sense of hurry and for conducting "the lovely intermezzo as though he were wearing thick woollen gloves". Perhaps to 1955 ears the opera did sound too fast, however it has stood the test of time better than the criticism! To my ears - in a world where speedier interpretations are now more commonplace - Cluytens does not harry his singers or gloss over the score’s felicities. I find it hard to imagine how anyone could accuse him of insensitivity - listen to the almost Karajanesque luxuriance of the string sound cushioning Don José’s "Tu ne m’aimes donc plus?" (Then you don’t love me anymore?, Disc 2, track 14, 00’ 10"). Woollen gloved-conducting, indeed!

Drawbacks? Well, the only sore point I came across afflicts the opening of the second Act. The curtain rises on the tavern of Lillas Pastia and it is here that Carmen sings her spirited Danse bohémienne. A treasurable moment, were it not for the fact that someone imagined a few "stage effects" would add to the realism at this point. The whole episode is marred by the clumsy sound of flamenco heels hammering on the tavern floor: and not in time at that! The overall effect is rather as if Carmen had distractedly wandered into Hans Sachs’ cobbler’s workshop during the inexpert repair of a shipping order of footwear!

The hammering apart, the recording is thankfully free of gimmicky intrusions and, while we are not told in the booklet anything of the work undertaken by the renowned Mark Obert-Thorn in restoring the recording, the whole opera has emerged sounding freshly minted. So much so that one often has to stop and remember that this is a fifty three year old mono recording, such is the sound quality. It is superbly detailed and well-balanced, with the individual singers suspended in a halo of ambience. If I were to be limited to but one adjective to describe both sound and interpretation it would have to be "glowing". The original sound engineer is not credited, but our thanks must go to this nameless individual for so faithfully capturing voices and orchestra in a such a remarkable, naturalistic way.

As elsewhere in this Naxos series, I regret the provision of only a cued synopsis (though, in fairness, this is well-written and easy to follow). I suppose it could be argued that this is unlikely to be the only set of Carmen on a collector’s shelf and that, in light of this, a full libretto from another set could be consulted. I still fear though that the non-French speaking listener would miss out on some of the sophisticated characterisations as a result.

In summation then the singers are first rate, the orchestral musicians spirited and wholly committed and Cluytens’ direction, with its pace and sense of theatre, is second to none. Glancing back at my notepad, I see that my review notes ended with the phrase "left with the feeling of having spent an exhilarating evening in a first class opera house" and I can add nothing further to that initial, overwhelming, reaction. Purchase without hesitation.

Richard Lee-Van den Daele


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