It was over forty years ago that I first heard this 1972 recording from DG, and my initial response was that the sonics floored me. In general, I didn't always care for DG's sound back then, but with Bernstein's Metropolitan Opera production of Carmen, I changed my mind. It seemed so alive, so real, I saw what the DG folks were capable of doing when they put their minds to it. Unfortunately, the old vinyl-disc set became a casualty of the CD era, and when I finally got around to hearing the same recording on DG's compact discs, the sound didn't seem to have the same live presence to it I remembered. Now, in 2015 we get a new remastering by Pentatone of DG's original multichannel tapes, and the sound impresses me once again.
But first a word about the opera: French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) premiered his four-act opera Carmen in 1875, using a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. The setting is Seville, Spain, during the early nineteenth century, the narrative concerning a beautiful and tempestuous Gypsy girl, Carmen (Horne), who lavishes her affections on a young but naive soldier, Don Jose (McCracken). 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 (Krause), Don Jose becomes so enraged with jealousy, he murders her.
Bizet would never know how successful his opera would eventually become because he died shortly after the premiere. After the composer's death, however, critics and audiences found enough beauty and melodrama in the piece to help transform French opera comique into the emerging Italian realism of Verdi and Puccini.
Interestingly, any number of people amended the score after Bizet died, adding, among other things, the introduction of recitative in place of the original dialogue. There exists today no standard edition of the opera, and different folks have their own ideas about which version best conveys Bizet's intentions. Maestro Bernstein here uses the original 1875 version of the opera with spoken dialogue, but with apparently some modifications for a modern stage production.
Not only do I remember DG's sound being spectacularly good on vinyl and only so-so on CD, I also remember the production itself getting mixed reviews. Critics of the day seemed more than a little perplexed by the conductor's choice of tempos (mostly slow but, then, occasionally breakneck), and never found the largely American cast particularly persuasive in their French accents. But what did I know? I've never been much of an opera connoisseur, so these things didn't and still don't bother me. Maybe time and repeated listening have mostly erased any doubts I might have had about the recording's worth.
Now, about those matters of tempo: Bernstein's slow pace is most apparent from the outset, during the opening Prelude. Beyond that, either Bernstein speeds up to normal, or one gets used to it. In either case, by the time you finish it, nothing seems extraordinarily out of place. The quiet interludes are tranquil and serene; the big climactic moments are impressively strong and healthy; and the entire proceedings are immensely enjoyable.
Pentatone have packaged the recording handsomely. They fitted the entire opera onto two discs of 79 and 80 minutes each; they have housed the discs in sleeves at the front and back of a CD-sized hardbound book; and they have included over 150 pages of text, photos, and libretto.
Producer Thomas Mowrey and engineer Gunter Hermans originally recorded the opera for four and eight-channel playback (although they never released it that way) at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City in September 1972. Pentatone Music remastered the recording at Baarn, The Netherlands in October 2014 and have issued their remastered edition in hybrid SACD. That means the discs offer two-channel stereo playback from an SACD layer and a regular CD layer and multichannel playback from an SACD layer. You can listen to the CD layer on any ordinary CD player but in order to enjoy the sound of the SACD layers, you will need an SACD player; I did my listening in SACD two-channel.
After writing this review, the engineer added the following comments: "It's gratifying to read this excellent perspective on a recording that I produced 42 years ago. One small correction: It was recorded 16-track on 2-inch Scotch 202 tape. After editing, I mixed it down to 4-track quad on half-inch tape, and simultaneously I made the 2-track stereo mix to quarter-inch tape by folding the rear channels into the front at a 1-to-1 ratio." --Thomas Mowrey, New York, 4/30/15
The most realistic things about the sound are the depth and dynamics. This production actually appears as though it's in front of you on a stage, with real presence and excellent transparency to the image and impact in the sonics. The highs sparkle, the midrange is clean and clear, and the bass reaches nicely down to the depths. Moreover, voices sound natural, with a rich warmth and lifelike clarity and almost no edge. Indeed, the whole recording seems exceptionally smooth. And if I had only one criticism it is that I would have liked a better separation of orchestra and vocals. But it's a minor reservation.
I have no hesitation in saying that of the eight or ten complete recordings of this opera I've listened to over the years, this one from Bernstein, remastered by Pentatone, is the best sounding of the lot. Whether the performance suits you is another matter. I've gotten used to it and like it quite a lot.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: