Bizet: Carmen, complete (CD review)

Victoria de los Angeles, Nicolai Gedda, Janine Micheau, Ernest Blanc; Sir Thomas Beecham, French Radio Chorus and Orchestra. EMI Classics 50999 9 48215 2 9 (3-disc set, plus bonus CD-ROM with libretto and synopsis).

Was there ever a more charming or more well-loved opera than Carmen, by French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875)? Yet poor Bizet would never live to see just how popular his final completed opera would become, the work seeing a poor opening in the year of the composer's early death.

Today, we have at least a half a dozen great recordings of it from conductors like Karajan (DG and RCA), Bernstein (DG), Solti (Decca), Abbado (DG), Plasson (EMI), Petrie (EMI), Sinopoli (Teldec), and others. But at the top of my own list of favorites has long been the one under consideration here, with Sir Thomas Beecham and stars Victoria de los Angeles and Nicolai Gedda, recorded over six decades ago and appropriately reissued by EMI yet again in 2011. I believe it marks the set's third time on CD alone, and it can't be enough.

Set in Seville, Spain, during the early nineteenth century, the narrative concerns a beautiful and tempestuous Gypsy girl, Carmen (De los Angeles), who lavishes her affections on a young but naive soldier, Don Jose (Gedda). He becomes so enamoured with Carmen, he spurns his former lover, deserts his regiment, and joins Carmen and a crew of smugglers. When Carmen subsequently rejects him and takes up with a bullfighter, Don Jose becomes so enraged with jealousy, he murders her. After Bizet's death, critics and audiences found enough melodrama in the piece to help transform French opera comique into the emerging Italian realism of Verdi and Puccini.

Beecham establishes his credentials from the outset with an Act I Prelude that is light and charming, appropriate to the romance of the opening scene. When things get serious, Beecham makes the proper adjustments, adding genuine color, texture, and excitement to the story without exaggerating the tempos too much.

De los Angeles has not just an attractive, flexible voice for the role but one that projects unquestionable passion and seduction. If there is any concern with the production, it's that De los Angeles tends to overpower everyone else. Nevertheless, Gedda and the others are more than adequate, if a trifle foursquare compared to the star. Fortunately, Beecham injects such high spirits into the affair that every singer comes away looking good.

Recorded by EMI in the Salle Wagram, Paris, in various sessions between 1958 and 1959, the sonics are as good as or better than anything produced today. The acoustic is spacious, with a fine sense of air around the instruments, a realistic depth to the orchestra, an expansive stereo spread, and plenty of transparency in the midrange. Distant sounds and voices really do sound distant and closer objects closer. It's a lifelike, multidimensional effect. A solid bass, extended highs, and wide dynamics complete the picture; and unlike so many competing versions, this one is neither too close or bright nor too distant or dull. Voices and orchestra appear perfectly balanced, too, so when we first hear the chorus enter, we know we're in for an aural treat.

Incidentally, EMI use the same 2000 remastering for this rerelease that they made for their earlier "Great Recordings of the Century" edition. So if you already own that set, you pretty much own this one. The big difference is that where before EMI included a printed synopsis and libretto, they now offer these items on a separate, bonus CD-ROM. Of course, you must have a CD-ROM drive in your computer and Adobe Acrobat 6.0 or higher to access the contents and a printer to print out the results. I can only guess that it was cheaper for EMI to provide the bonus disc than to print up an entire booklet. I dunno.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa