Bizet: Carmen, complete (SACD review)

Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Tom Krause, Adriana Maliponte; Manhattan Chorus; Leonard Bernstein, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children's Chorus. Pentatone PTC 5186 216.

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.

Leonard Bernstein
Ms. Horne is in great voice, with a very wide range and pretty good dramatic force. Naturally, one's choice of a favorite or "perfect" Carmen must remain a very individual and personal matter. For me, Victoria de los Angeles seemed ideal. But there is nothing wrong with Ms. Horne's still appropriately earthy approach. Likewise, James McCracken's Don Jose may not strike you as sounding naive enough, but he, too, makes the best of it with his robust, full-blooded tenor voice. The rest of the cast sound just as good, with the chorus putting in a particularly fine show without being in any way flashy or upstaging.

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:

1 comment:


    Regards, Thomas Roth


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa