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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen: highlights (1875) [74:55]
Tatiana Troyanos (mezzo) – Carmen; Plácido Domingo (tenor) - Don José; José van Dam (baritone) – Escamillo; Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) – Micaëla; Norma Burrowes (soprano) – Frasquita; Jane Berbié (mezzo) – Mercédés; Michel Roux (baritone) – Dancaïre; Michel Sénéchal (tenor) - Remendado; Pierre Thau (bass) – Zuniga; Jacques Loreau (speaker) - Lillas Pastia
John Alldis Choir
Boys' Chorus from Haberdashers' Aske's School, Elstree
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, July 1975. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 3520 [74:55]

Carmen, like Don Giovanni, strikes me as unusually difficult to "get right". The score's musical and vocal hurdles ensure that not only do you need an appropriate cast and conductor, but everyone pretty much has to be on top form. So your reaction to this selection from Solti's complete recording will depend on how you like the singing, the conducting and even the engineering.
 
The sessions captured Solti at the peak of his powers and popularity. His conducting, at its best, etches detail with marvelous rhythmic alertness: note the pillowy, full-bodied brass chords in the Prélude. His pacing is unexceptionable and always grateful for the soloists. Some "trademark" Solti moments - the resonant string chords under Don José's "Ce baiser" in the Micaëla duet, for example - come off in this transfer as overbearing. A number of uncertain and even early bass pizzicati - unfortunately magnified by Decca's boomy bass equalization - suggest some lack of clarity in Sir Georg's beat.
 
Kiri Te Kanawa, fresh from her previous Covent Garden and Met triumphs, sings Micaëla gorgeously. Now and then, a top note betrays some strain, or a low phrase will be diffuse and mouthy - the two conditions are not unrelated. Most of the time, the sound is creamy and vibrant, free of the breathiness that would later creep from her crossover albums into her legit singing.
 
Plácido Domingo, too, is captured at his most youthfully refulgent. Oddly, he tends to push ahead between phrases of the Flower Song - he keeps the pulse steady within each phrase - but any discomfort doesn't show in the rolling, full-bodied sound. There are moments of iffy French. The José-Micaëla duet, with these two artists, is a vocal and musical high-point.
 
Here and there, Tatiana Troyanos - replacing Shirley Verrett, who sang in the Covent Garden run - offers flashes of a strongly profiled Carmen. Her entrance recitative, for example, is vivid, with pointed detail. The set pieces - including the Habañera that immediately follows - sound comparatively generic, with the voice locked into overly covered vowels. The Card Scene is particularly frustrating: for all her verbal responsiveness, you simply can't understand her.
 
José van Dam, ordinarily a tactful artist and an estimable singer, blusters his way through a lot of syllables in the Toreador Song, including most of the downbeats, to no apparent advantage. Unfortunately, his earlier recording for Lombard (Erato) and his later one for Karajan (DG) are much the same - for my taste, he simply was never a good Escamillo.
 
You can always take issue with the choices for this sort of selection. Certainly, it's good to have the Quintet, performed here with winning brio - the comprimarii are first-rate - and the opening choral scene of Act IV makes a nice splash. Still, given Solti's knack for projecting colour and texture, I might have sacrificed either or both of these to have room for the three Entr'actes.
 
Decca's souped-up late-analog mix-downs haven't always worn well in the transfer to digital. The multi-channel recording remains vivid in lightly scored passages and homophonic tuttis. In the busier passages, however, the various musical elements all sound equally close, which, combined with Sir Georg's intensity, produces aural fatigue. Besides, the conductor hardly needed the help.
 
The producers have chosen, unnecessarily, to make a break between track 8 (the Flower Song) and track 9 (Carmen's "Non! Tu ne m'aimes pas," which immediately follows). The billing is complete almost to the point of being misleading. Zuniga's participation is limited to the ensemble portions of the Toreador Song - the José-Carmen argument ends on the big diminished-seventh chord before Zuniga knocks. Lillas Pastia, a speaking role, is heard only in the dialogue preceding Escamillo's entry; the boys' chorus appears only in the Act IV opening.
 
If you're picking and choosing to assemble a Carmen - the way people used to in 78 rpm days, when complete operas were few and far between - you might want to consider this at mid-price, for Domingo and Te Kanawa.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
 


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