26 Sep 2016

Carmen: Readings; Listenings; Viewings

A quick scan through Amazon’s offerings shows only one English translation of Prosper Mérimée’s story.    Prosper Mérimée:  Carmen and other stories was published in 1989 by Oxford University Press; Nicholas Jotcham translated the nine stories and provided an Introduction and a Chronology.
Oxford University Press is also the publisher of a series of studies of various composers called “The Master Musicians.” Georges Bizet first appeared in its catalogue with a study by Winton Dean in 1948, which was later, in 1965 and 1975, revised and expanded.  In 2014 Oxford saw fit to publish Hugh Macdonald’s Bizet. Read together, both studies provide a well-rounded biography of the composer, with lots of discussion about the music.
Carmen is the thirteenth subject of a series of “Opera Guides” produced in collaboration between London’s English National Opera, at the Coliseum, and The Royal Opera, at Covent Garden.  Each volume includes the original libretto with the English translation as it was performed at ENO in 1982. That production used dialogue, so all of that is included here.  I encourage you to read it because you will learn so much about the characters from their conversations.  Additional essays discuss various aspects of the opera;  one of them here discusses Opéra-Comique as a genre unto itself.  Hint:  it does not mean “comic opera” as a literal translation of the two French words would suggest.
Cambridge University in the UK publishes a series of “Handbooks” on specific operas.  Its Carmen contains six essays by Susan McClary (“The genesis of Bizet’s Carmen”; “Images of race, class and gender in nineteenth-century French culture”; “The musical languages of Carmen”; “Synopsis and analysis”; “The reception of Carmen”;  and “Carmen on film”) and one, “Mérimée’s Carmen,” by Peter Robinson.
Another Cambridge series – “Studies in Opera” – has just published Opera Acts:  Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century by Karen Henson.  The second chapter discusses Célestine Galli-Marié, the creator of the role of Carmen.
Bizet and his world by Mina Curtiss was published in 1958, so much of her findings of original letters from Bizet, to him, and about him, have been incorporated into later publications by other scholars.   Her factual Preface, though, can barely contain the excitement she felt when, pursuing the originals of some of Marcel Proust’s letters – many of them to Bizet’s widow – she was given access to troves of manuscript “letters from Bizet to his parents, his wife…; from Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, and other composers…to Bizet…letters which had never before been seen by anyone but the correspondents themselves or their heirs.” Her excitement is contagious.
Archivmusic.com lists 71 recordings – eleven of them DVDs – for purchase.   Since some, both recordings and DVDs, are collected in a kind of “Best of…” box-set (either CD or DVD), the actual choices are fewer.   Here are some comments on those listings, though I’ve not listened to or seen them all. The order may seem haphazard: it’s their order on the Archiv web-site!

  1. Julia Migenes/Placido Domingo/Maazel CD is the soundtrack for the film made in 1984, which is also .
  2. The combination of Giulietta Simionato and Giuseppe Di Stefano conducted by von Karajan seems dynamic until you read that it is a live performance from La Scala in 1955, and though it says it is sung in French, one must wonder how “French” it sounds!
  3. In 1951 RCA recorded what could have been a regular Carmen performance at the Metropolitan Opera that year: Risë Stevens in the title role, with Jan Peerce, Licia Albanese and Robert Merrill. Stevens, at that time, owned the role at the Met., and this recording was my introduction to the opera.
  4. Anna Sophie von Otter’s first portrayal of the role was at Glyndebourne in 2002. Reviews were cool as was, apparently, she.
  5. Some singers who recorded the role you could not imagine performing it on stage. Victoria de los Angeles was the first of those. In 1958/59 the English conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, who knew his French music in a way few others did, recorded the opera with the soprano giving us a very delightfully charming and playful interpretation of the title role. Despite her triumphs at the Met. at that time, her requests to perform the role there were ignored, and it wasn’t until 1978 that the New Jersey State Opera gave her a production, which was repeated the following year at the New York City Opera.   By then, though, she was vocally past her best.
  6. Jonas Kaufmann sings Don José in two different productions available on DVD. The first was filmed at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2007; the other is a production taped, in 2008, at The Zurich Opera House.
  7. In 1964 the EMI publicity department screamed “Callas IS Carmen!” By this time her singing career was virtually over, but singing Carmen in a recording studio does not demand the huge vocal resources of, say, Norma. Faced with Callas as Carmen, Nicolai Gedda as José should have run as fast as he could back to the safety of his mother and Micaëla!
  8. In 2010 Yannick Nézet-Séguin made his Metropolitan Opera debut with a new production of Carmen, and the performance is available on DVD. Elena Garanca and Roberto Alagna are the lovers. Earlier this year Nézet-Séguin was appointed Music Director at the Met;  so watch this and hear what all the fuss was about!
  9. Georges Thill was the Jonas Kaufmann of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Some sixty-six years after he retired from the opera stage, he remains the greatest tenor France ever produced; maybe simply the best singer France ever produced.  Thankfully he made many recordings;  this Carmen was made in Paris in 1928, so you need to adjust your ears, though not when it comes to Thill’s voice.  There are no recitatives – just the “musical” numbers; the other singers (all French, as is the orchestra and chorus) are not bad, but none of them come close to the classiness of Thill.
  10. Herbert von Karajan’s production at the 1966 Salzburg Festival, with Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers as a volatile pair of lovers (when was Vickers not volatile?), was filmed the following year and is now available on DVD.  It’s very much a touristy “Bienvenido a España!” production.
  11. Three years earlier Karajan recorded the score in the studio. Leontyne Price never sang the role on stage, but what singing is here! Listen to her Habañera and you’ll understand why Franco Corelli’s José was immediately bewitched.  The 28-year-old Mirella Freni is a luscious Micaëla – as she would prove to be on stage three years later, in Salzburg.
  12. In 1977 appeared a surprising recording of the opera. It was based on a production at the Edinburgh Festival and was conducted by the wonderful Claudio Abbado. The surprise was the singer singing the title role:  Teresa Berganza, a Spanish mezzo-soprano known for her brilliant performances of Rossini’s Rosina and Cenerentola as well as the Mozart mezzos:  Dorabella and Cherubino.  Not at all, one thought, the voice for that most fatale-est of femmes!  What an eye-opener – or rather, ear-opener!
  13. If you had to adjust your ears to Thill’s 1928 recording, you must double your adjustment for this 1911 recording. Yes – 1911! You’ll not have heard of any of the singers, nor of the conductor, BUT they were members of the Opéra-Comique company;  the orchestra and what chorus there is, were also from that theatre.  A mere thirty-six years after the opera’s first performance in that theatre (which had produced it very regularly over those years) the opera is preserved with all the style – vocal and musical – that is so unique.  Think about this:  there may have been some orchestra members in 1911who played in the opening run of performances!   The recording also contains some of the original dialogue – the only set to do so until more modern times.
  14. Two recordings conducted by Sir Georg Solti. One, live from Covent Garden in 1973, has Shirley Verrett in the title role; Placido Domingo;  José Van Dam; and Kiri te Kanawa are the other principals. In 1975 a studio recording was issued, but with Tatiana Troyanos as Carmen, though the other principals remained the same; different orchestra and chorus.

I checked Youtube – not all the pages, mind you – and there were about 10 complete performances, from various places, available viewing in one place. There were a couple of other performances that might be complete, except that they are uploaded in bits and pieces of varying length.  Some of the “complete” performances are DVDs listed above.  You can also find on Youtube Peter Brooke’s radical revision of Bizet’s opera, which he called La Tragédie de Carmen.
In December 1943 Carmen Jones opened on Broadway.  Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame – their Oklahoma! had opened nine months earlier) moved the location to America, wrote a new script and lyrics. It ran for two years.  In 1954 the movie version, directed by Otto Preminger, was released, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.  Marilyn Horne was 20 when she was the “singing voice” of Dorothy Dandridge.  Some years ago the show was revived in London’s West End.
In 1967 the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin looked at the various bits of Bizet’s score that had been cobbled together into at least one Orchestral Suite, which sometimes required that the vocal line of the original be assigned to an instrument in the orchestra.  Shchedrin arranged these various “Suites” into one Carmen Suite as the score for a ballet starring his wife, the great Maya Plisetskaya.  What’s so interesting about this adaptation is that Shchedrin’s orchestra consists only of strings and percussion.   His sense of humor comes through when he sets the listener up for, I think, the well-known refrain of Escamillo’s aria and simply offers the accompaniment, as if to say “You know the tune; sing it!”   Fascinating to listen to.
In 1983 the Spanish film director Carlos Saura released Carmen.  In his version a Flamenco Dance company is rehearsing their adaptation of the Mérimée story; the choreographer falls in love with the dancer dancing the title role, who is also named Carmen.  Wonderful.
Just how universal Bizet’s opera has become is reflected in U-Carmen (available in DVD), a retelling/adaptation of the story as it applies to Khayelitsha, a Xhosa (traditional tribe) township in South Africa. The story melds the original plot with traditional Xhosa tales and combines Bizet’s music with traditional melodies, all sung in the Xhosa language by members of the South African theatre company Dimpho Di Kopane. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1nJMLAmnHc
©Paul Dorgan