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Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875) Carmen (excerpts)
Carmen - Julia Migenes Johnson (soprano)
Don José – Placido Domingo (tenor)
Escamillo – Ruggiero Raimondi (bass)
Micaela – Faith Esham (soprano)
Mercedes – Susan Daniel (mezzo soprano)
Frasquita – Lilian Watson (soprano)
Zuniga – John Paul Bogart (bass)
Morales – Francois le Roux (baritone)
Choeurs et Maitrise de Radio France/Lorin Maazel
Recorded December 1982, Radio France, Paris
WARNER ELATUS 2564 60804-2 [55.26]


You can fit the more famous numbers from ‘Carmen’ quite easily onto a single CD. And with such potted excerpts, we can listen to Bizet’s lovely music without having to worry about all the various issues regarding edition, language, dialogue and recitative that can beset a recording. This particular recording was made as the sound-track of a film, but was received reasonably enthusiastically when first issued on CD. It does however, have one slightly controversial feature: Carmen is played by a soprano.

Carmen is sung here by Julia Migenes Johnson. Her Habanera is wonderfully shapely and sexy, in a quite light flirty manner. She resorts to a rather confiding tone at times. This works musically but is wrong for the drama of the piece. In the Séguidille her use of an intimate tone is surprisingly successful, though she seems to lack the requisite power as the piece builds towards its climax. In Act 4 she and Placido Domingo (as Don José) give us a wonderfully dramatic climax to the opera.

Domingo still displays a fine flexible line even though he is a bit tighter at the top than when I heard him in the role at the Edinburgh Festival (recorded for DG with Teresa Berganza as Carmen). He can slim his voice down, so the Act I duet with Micaela comes over as suitably intimate and credible. He sings in decent French, but you would never mistake him for a French tenor (if such a beast still exists). He delivers a powerful rendition of the Flower Song which only makes us regret that the scene is cut short at that point.

As Micaela, Faith Esham displays a strong vibrato. This, coupled with her pleasantly warm voice, makes her Micaela sound a little knowing; not naïve and virginal enough. Also, there is inevitably not quite enough contrast with Migenes Johnson. Esham would, I think, come over better with a more traditional dark mezzo Carmen. In her Act 3 solo she sounds rather less self-possessed than some Micaelas I have heard, which makes the scene far more dramatically credible.

As Escamillo, Ruggiero Raimondi displays the familiar failing that the lower notes in his big aria seem just out of reach. Apart from this he gives a fine, robust performance.

Both Domingo and Migenes Johnson sing in decent French and all the cast are adequate in this respect (we hardly hear from François le Roux, the one native speaker in the cast). But it is Migenes Johnson who uses the sound of the French language to inflect her voice, so that she starts to sound French rather than just singing the language; a great advantage in an internationally cast Carmen such as this.

Maazel’s tempi are generally spot-on and he is rarely self-indulgent; except perhaps in the opening to Act 2 which is taken at a very leisurely tempo.

Despite the high level of music making, I cannot help feeling that this disc is Carmen ‘lite’. With a running time of just 55 minutes, there is plenty of space for other items. We do not get Carmen’s taunting response to the Flower Song in Act 2. There is no Card Scene and no prelude to Act 3. So, apart from Act 4, we get little chance to hear the darker, fatalistic side to Carmen’s character. This makes the excerpts dramatically one sided. And, with a soprano Carmen we end up with just the lighter-voiced numbers.

But then, all sopranos must adopt some sort of scheme for coping with singing a part written so much with the darker tones of the mezzo in mind. De Los Angeles gave us probably the chic-est Carmen on record; Callas was sui generis, utilising the very Italianate break in her voice to remarkable effect. So Migenes Johnson uses a flirty, confiding tone that works well enough. I did rather wonder how much this was due to her lack of a real dark bottom to her voice, though her lower register is effective enough.

Robert Hugill

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