Pros: Sinopoli's poetic conducting, Larmore's Carmen, Ramey's Escamillo.
Cons: For sex, blood and explosive passions, go somewhere else.
The Bottom Line: Elegant and beautiful recording of the world's most popular opera.
When one thinks “opera”, it’s 90 chances of 100 s/he thinks “Carmen”. This opera is probably the most popular and well-known operatic piece, its music being used everywhere, from commercials to sports and children’s cartoons, the characters’ names becoming catchwords. To think that it was almost a failure at the premiere seems an irony now.
The universal popularity of Georges Bizet’s masterpiece is easy to explain. It’s 2,5 hours of the most gorgeous and at the same time accessible music imaginable plus the exotic drama and three vivid central characters. Needless to say that the music stores abound in different recordings of “Carmen”. To find among them something special, like this recording, is a real treat.
First of all, it’s Maestro Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting Bavarian Staatsorchester in a way that you don’t often meet in other “Carmens”. He treats Bizet’s creation as it is – a French opera in its core. His reading of the music is light, elegant and lyrical, very French in atmosphere. The typical flamboyant “Spanishness” and boiling passions are much less present here. Instead it is lyricism and exquisite beauty that come to our ears and eyes. This is best seen in the immensely poetic and picturesque prelude to Act III. It was long time since I last saw such vivid and beautiful (though not Spanish at all) landscapes come to my mind together with music.
The singers share Maestro Sinopoli’s refined approach and perform their parts in the same lyrical and soft way, avoiding the excessed “Spanish” atmosphere. Even the walking symbol of Spanish temperament, Escamillo the torero somehow manages to sound much less macho and more elegant than usual.
Carmen, the beautiful gypsy – Jennifer Larmore (mezzo-soprano)
Don José, the dragoon corporal – Thomas Moser (tenor)
Escamillo, the celebrated bullfighter – Samuel Ramey (bass)
Micaëla, the peasant girl – Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)
Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Giuseppe Sinopoli
The basic story is probably known to everyone but I’ll remind it just in case: a beautiful and free-spirited gypsy girl Carmen seduces the soldier Don José and even makes him desert for her. Months later she is tired with José’s jealousy and possessiveness, and leaves him for the famous bullfighter Escamillo whom she really loves as he, like her, is a free adventurous soul refusing to concede to any restrictions. Don José, unable to persuade Carmen to return to him, kills her with a knife just as the crowd celebrates Escamillo’s victory in the arena. There’s also the sweet peasant girl Micaëla, who hangs around José for a couple of times.
The vocal cast here is not very traditional as well. This recording clearly prefers the low voices over the high ones. All the principal singers except maybe for Don José, possess somewhat darker voices than are usually applied for these parts.
The gorgeous, spirited, chocolate-voiced Carmen of Atlanta-born Jennifer Larmore is everything you can wish for the freedom-loving gypsy. Though her mezzo-soprano is very dark and deep, with almost a contralto sound at times, I don’t find it unsuitable. After all, Carmen is the embodiment of female sensuality, and this voice is extraordinarily sensual, bright despite its chocolate timbre, warm and very expressive. It is also very feminine even in the lowest passages, in contrast to Larmore’s ‘pants’ roles such as Arsace and Falliero. But this Carmen doesn’t possess the aggressive sexuality that is so often attributed to this character (Julia Migenes-Johnson in the Rosi film adaptation, right). Sensuality and carnal sexuality are not the same thing, and I find the former much more appealing. This Carmen would rather attract by her bright personality and untamed spirit than by her curves and looks (though the looks too are smashing, see the CD cover). And I believe that was exactly the idea Bizet had in mind, though, of course, I can’t summon his spirit and ask him personally.
Don José, the ill-fated soldier, is a diffucult role to portray. He is a tragic and very unhappy figure but to make him sympathetic is not an easy task at all. To make him a jealous jerk with unstable psyche is much easier. I’m afraid American tenor Thomas Moser, though a solid singer with a noble voice, was more successful in bringing the second interpretation of Don José to the front. One ought to hear this venomous spitting in José’s speaking lines. And somehow I also got the feeling that Mr. Moser wasn’t particularly thrilled of Don José as a character. That’s just my impression and it may be absolutely wrong. Especially when I’m so in love with his rival Escamillo who totally steals the show from the poor dragoon corporal.
The role of testosterone-congested torero here is taken by American bass star Samuel Ramey. Escamillo is not a role Ramey is known for, even though he’d once sung him 40 times in a single summer, and has one more recording of this part on the Metropolitan Opera DVD with Baltsa and Carreras. I admit I’m a fan of Ramey and may be biased at times but it’s objective truth that his voice is magnificent, virile and beautiful like a new Cadillac Escalade, his vocal technique impeccable and his characterization very good. What more does the part of Escamillo need? And his ability to make a role sound as new even after a few hundred times is a quality I very much admire. Anyway, his Escamillo in this recording is quite different from the Met one, as the productions are different in style and interpretation. While the Met bullfighter was a traditional macho type (jumping on a table and all), this one is more suave and gentlemanlike. Ramey even restrains his grand voice in some passages. Not that it affects the top-notch quality of his singing. And I especially love their militant duet with José, which, unlike on the Met DVD, is present here in full.
The only non-American of the four principals is Micaëla of the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who is nowadays famous not only for her stage talents but also by her off-stage diva personality. Which at the time of this production (1996) must have been not so diva-ish yet, if she agreed to sing the minor part of Micaëla. And she does it with aplomb, her voice, darker than most Micaëlas usually have, adding a credible dramatic touch to her character interpretation. And her only aria Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante is just stupendous.
All the singers, despite being non-French, have good French diction, and nothing distracts from enjoyng the music.
All in all, this is a “Carmen” to take a note of, if not mind-blowingly brilliant, with a very interesting approach to the music and an excellent and memorable voice cast.