Help! So many Carmen’s! Which one is a real must have?

Poster of the première in 1875

In prehistoric times, when ratings alone were not everything and cultural-loving audiences were still taken into account, television-watching opera lovers also came into their own.

Illustration of Bizet’s opera Carmen, published in Journal Amusant, 1875. The image, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, is marked “domaine public”

I never used to like opera. I loved violin concerts and piano solo works, very early on I learned to appreciate chamber music and when I got a bit older, songs also came my way. But opera? The mere idea that an old, fat lady would try to portray a young girl dying of TB, gave me the giggles. Talk about prejudice!


Until one memorable evening in 1982, when I turned on the TV to watch Carmen. I only did it to please my then boyfriend and then it happened! From that night on, the world was forever changed and my life gained a great love.

For years I cherished this Carmen, although I only had a badly copied but very expensive mc (does anyone remember what it was?). It was later released on various ‘pirate labels’ and finally on DVD (Arthaus Musik 109096).


Something similar happened to me in 2011, when the BBC brightened up a dull Christmas afternoon with an opera transmission from London’s Covent Garden. Orchestrally, this Carmen is slightly less spectacular than Kleiber’s. Antonio Pappano is an impassioned conductor and whips up the Royal Opera House orchestra to unprecedented heights, but this time my knocked-out feeling was caused by the unusually exciting direction and the phenomenal lead performers.

Francesca Zambello does not shy away from a lot of sentiment and provides a blatantly realistic spectacle, without updates and concepts. The action actually takes place in Seville and the eye is treated to a beautiful choreography and stunning costumes.

Anna Caterina Antonacci is a very spunky and sexy Carmen, very defiant but also confident and proud. Her gorgeous black eyes spit fire, and her beautiful appearance and great acting talent do not hide the fact that she can also sing: her powerful voice has a range of emotions. All in all: a real tragédienne. A real Carmen.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is a fantastic, virile Escamillo. His entrance on the big black horse is truly spectacular.

Jonas Kaufmann is easily the best José I have ever experienced in my life. His spinto tenor sounds phenomenal in all registers, nowhere exaggerated and lyrical and whispery where necessary. He cannot be outdone as an actor either, and his more-than-attractive looks we’ll take as a bonus. You surely know by now: you must have this Carmen! (Decca 0743312)


Carmen by Bizet, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner Gardiner… who would have thought it possible? And yet it makes more sense than you think. Because with the 2009 performance, Gardiner brought the opera back to the site of its world premiere and the orchestra played the work with the instruments of that time.

Adrian Noble’s (brilliant!) direction is mainly focused on the characters, the staging is highly illustrative and the libretto is closely followed. It is realistic, beautiful and exciting. The unified décor is adapted to each scene, making you feel like you are actually present in all these different locations.

The voices are on the small side, but I don’t think that was a problem at the time at the Opéra Comique in Paris, let alone on DVD.

Andrew Richards is not the best José ever, but his interpretation of the role is phenomenal. He begins as a nice and very cuddly stranger and ends up as a kind of Jesus, with delusion in his eyes.

Unfortunately, Nicolas Cavallier (Escamillo) does not have enough sex appeal for a macho toreador, but he compensates a lot with his beautiful singing.

Anna Caterina Antonacci is one of the best Carmens these days. Beautiful, sexy, challenging and nowhere vulgar. Her deep, warm voice has all the colours of the rainbow.Gardiner clearly feels inspired. His tempi are dizzying at times.


The 2003 production in Glyndebourne, directed by David McVickar, also looks superb. The stage- set in the first two acts is very industrious. The third act begins foggy, with sparse lighting (the lighting is very ingenious), very cinematic, and very moving. In act IV, you have everything needed to populate Seville: the toreros, the matadors, the beautifully dressed Spanish Doñas and Dons. Breathtaking.

Carmen’s death (her throat is cut in a very bloody way) is thriller-like exciting. Unfortunately, the lead role is played by Anne Sofie von Otter. Because, let’s face it: Carmen is not her thing. In her valiant attempts to still convey something of the Spanish temperament, she degenerates into a vulgar slut. Sin. (OPUS ARTE OA 0867)


Just like today’s movies, opera used to be public entertainment number one. And that for a long time. No wonder, then, that from the very beginning of cinema, much attention was paid to this already well known art form. Carmen, one of the most popular

operas of the time, appealed particularly to the imagination and was filmed as early as 1912 with the prima ballerina of the Opéra Comique, Régina Badet, in the leading role.

In 1915, Cecil B. DeMille filmed the opera again, this time with Geraldine Farrar as the man-eating gypsy. Now, Farrar was not only one of the greatest sopranos and MET legends of the early 20th century, her beautiful appearance and excessive acting talent also enabled her to build a career as a Hollywood actress.

The story was  substantially amended, making Carmen a thoroughly bad woman, possessing hardly any subtleties. Everything is black and white, just like the (silent) film itself, but that should not spoil the fun, because there is a lot to enjoy.

The film has been fully restored from DeMille’s personal copy, and the original score by Hugo Riesenfeld has been recreated by Gilian B. Anderson, who also conducts the London Symphonic Orchestra in the recorded soundtrack. As a bonus a few arias, sung by Farrar, have been edited in between scenes. For film and opera lovers alike, this is a veritable monument and not to be missed (VAI 4362).


The most beautiful CD recording, at least to me, is the one with Teresa Berganza under Claudio Abbado (DG 4196362). It was recorded in the studio in 1978, but only after a series of live performances, and it is all the better for that! Ileana Cotrubas (Micaela) and Sherrill Milnes (Escamillo) complete the excellent cast.

Two years earlier, Domingo also recorded the opera in the studio (Decca 4144892), but I am less enthusiastic about it.

Solti conducts superbly and Tatiana Troyanos as Carmen is one in a thousand, perhaps she is even better than Berganza, but José van Dam is no Escamillo and the whole lacks the atmosphere of the theater.

Without a doubt interesting are the performances of the lead role by Victoria de los Angeles and, of course, Maria Callas. And for lovers (and collectors) of historical recordings: Urania (URN 22.378) not long ago released the 1959 performance recorded live in Paris, featuring a seductive Carmen by Consuelo Rubio and an elegant Don José by Leopold Simoneau.

Another one you cannot ignore is the legendary Conchita Supervia’s rendition of the role (various labels).

In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein II adapted the opera into a Broadway musical, Carmen Jones. He moved the action to the present (we are talking about the early years of World War II) in Southern America. The premiere, on 2 December 1943 was a great success, and to think that the entire (black!) cast was making its debut on stage!

A few years ago, Naxos (81208750) released the highlights (recorded in 1944) of the musical, with the bonus of four songs from Otto Preminger’s 1954 film of the same name. The role of Carmen there was played by Dorothy Daindridge, but sung by the very young (20!) Marilyn Horne, then a soprano. Breathtaking

By the way: did you know that the opera’s most famous hit, the Habanera, was not by Bizet at all? It was called El Arreglito and was composed by Sebastián Yradier). Bizet was convinced that it was a folk song and when he found out that it had been written by a composer who had died only ten years earlier, he added a footnote to the score, citing the source.

In conversation with Marilyn Horne


It’s so simple: you dial a phone number. A dark, warm, sweet voice answers the call with: “Hello, with Marilyn”. And gone are the nerves. We talk much longer than the half hour time limit I’ve got. And there is plenty of laughter.

On 16 January 2003 she turned seventy and at the same time she celebrated her official debut fifty years ago. To mark the occasion, she released a CD, which she compiled herself. ” Have you heard it yet?” she asks. ” I’ m quite proud of it. It contains both studio and live recordings. All chosen by myself”.

Horne cd 70

“Seventy, my God, where did the time go? I made my debut in opera when I was twenty years old, but I sang my entire life. I actually made my debut when I was two years old, so I’ve been singing for almost 50 years. My father was a semi-professional singer, a tenor with a beautiful voice. He was my first teacher, my mentor. I started singing lessons when I was 5 years old, something I won’t recommend to anyone. Too early.”

When she was twenty her father died. And she left for Europe. Was there any connection?
“Pure coincidence. My European plans were already fixed for some time. He developed an acute form of leukaemia, and at that time you died of it quickly. He was diagnosed on Sunday and was already dead on Wednesday. But I was on my way to Europe. With a Dutch ship by the way, which was called ‘Maasdam’.”


Marylin Horne started out as a soprano and then became one of the greatest mezzo’s in history.
“Young girls don’t have low notes, and I was a young girl. As I got older, I was asked more and more if I was sure that I was a soprano, well, I was sure of that. In the Gelsenkirchen opera I sang heavy soprano roles, like Minnie in La Fanciulla del West. And Marie in Wozzeck, a role that brought me fame and happiness. I sang it in Covent Garden, and later in Los Angeles. Luckily there are pirate recordings so I can listen to them now. I am very grateful to the ‘pirates’ because I never recorded my own performances. And it’s live. When you’ re an opera singer, you sing opera live, on stage.”

Marilyn Horne sings Marie in Wozzeck in a pirate recording from 1966:

Her repertoire is huge: from Gesualdo to contemporary music, opera, songs and musicals.

“And film” she adds. “In fact, I sang everything that was possible. I was a kind of chameleon, able to change the necessary colours. Looking back at my career, I wonder: why was I in such a hurry? I strongly advise my students against that.”

More good advice?
“Work on your technique, that’s the most important thing”.

Did she have an example? An idol?
“In my childhood Lily Pons. Especially in her aria from Lakmé. And in my puberty, Renata Tebaldi. Still, by the way.”

Does she have an explanation for the immense popularity of opera in recent years?
“Yes, I do! The subtitles!”

The subtitles?
“Absolutely! Listen, a few days ago I was in the MET, for La Bohème. I myself once sang both Mimi and Musetta and now for the first time I could follow what the others had to say”.

Marilyn Horne sings Musetta in 1962:

She laughs and starts coughing. She didn’t catch a cold, did she?
“A little bit. But I do take care of myself. And in a moment I get in a cab and drive to the pool, because I’m addicted to aquarobics”.

Will she ever come to the Netherlands again?
“I’d love to, because it’s been so long! I don’t even remember when it was last! But you have to be asked for that first, don’t you?”

Marilyn Horne sings ‘Somewhere’ from Bernstein’s West Side Story:

Translated with

In gesprek met Marilyn Horne


Het is zo simpel: je draait een telefoonnummer. Er wordt opgenomen en een donkere, warme, lieve stem zegt: “hallo, met Marilyn”. En weg zijn de zenuwen. We praten veel langer dan het toegestane half uur. En er wordt veel gelachen.

Op 16 januari 2003 werd zij zeventig en tegelijkertijd vierde ze haar officiële debuut, vijftig jaar geleden. Om het te vieren kwam er een cd uit, die zij zelf heeft samengesteld. “Had je het al gehoord?” vraagt ze. “Want ik ben er best trots op. Er staan zowel studio als live opnamen op. Allemaal zelf gekozen”.

Horne cd 70

“Zeventig, mijn god, waar is de tijd gebleven? Mijn debuut in de opera maakte ik toen ik twintig jaar oud was, maar ik heb mijn hele leven gezongen. En in feite debuteerde ik toen ik twee jaar oud was, dus ik zing al bijna 70 jaar. Mijn vader was een semiprofessionele zanger, een tenor met een prachtige stem. Hij was mijn eerste leraar, mijn mentor. Ik begon met de zanglessen toen ik 5 jaar oud was, iets, wat ik overigens niemand zal aanbevelen. Te vroeg.”

Toen ze twintig was stierf haar vader. En zij vertrok naar Europa. Was er enig verband?

“Puur toeval. Mijn Europese plannen stonden al een tijd vast. Hij kreeg een acute vorm van leukemie, en in die tijd stierf je er snel aan. Zondag kreeg hij de diagnose en woensdag was hij al dood. Maar ja, ik was al onderweg naar Europa. Met een Nederlands schip overigens, dat ‘Maasdam’ heette”.


Marylin Horne is als sopraan begonnen om daarna één van de grootste mezzo’s uit de geschiedenis te worden.
“Jonge meisjes hebben geen lage noten, en ik was een jong meisje. Toen ik ouder werd, werd me steeds vaker gevraagd of ik er zeker van ben, dat ik een sopraan ben, Nou, daar was ik dus zeker van. In de opera van Gelsenkirchen zong ik zware sopraanrollen, zoals Minnie in La Fanciulla del West. En Marie in Wozzeck, een rol die mij roem en geluk heeft gebracht. Ik zong het in de Covent Garden, en daarna in Los Angeles. Gelukkig bestaan er piratenopnamen van en zo kan ik er weer naar luisteren. Ik ben de ‘piraten’ dus bijzonder dankbaar want zelf nam ik mijn optredens nooit op. En het is live en als je een operazanger bent dan doe je de opera live, op de bühne.”

Marilyn Horne zingt Marie in Wozzeck in een piratenopname uit1966:

Haar repertoire is immens: van Gesualdo tot de modernen, opera, liederen, musicals.
“En film” voegt ze eraan toe. “In feite zong ik alles wat mogelijk was. Ik was een soort kameleon, was in staat de benodigde kleuren te veranderen. Nu ik terugkijk naar mijn carrière vraag ik me af: waarom was ik zo gehaast? Dat raad ik mijn studenten absoluut af.”

Meer goede adviezen?
“Werk aan je techniek, dat is het allerbelangrijkste”.

Had ze een voorbeeld? Een idool?
“In mijn kinderjaren Lily Pons. En dan voornamelijk in haar aria uit Lakmé. En in mijn puberteit Renata Tebaldi. Nog steeds trouwens.”

Heeft ze een verklaring voor de immense populariteit van de opera in de laatste jaren?
“Ja zeker! De boventitels!”

De boventitels?
“Absoluut! Luister, een paar dagen geleden was ik in de MET, naar La Bohéme. Zelf heb ik ooit zowel Mimi als Musetta gezongen en nu kon ik voor het eerst volgen wat de anderen te zeggen hadden”.

Marilyn Horne zingt Musetta in 1962:

Ze lacht en begin te hoesten. Ze is toch niet verkouden geworden?
“Een beetje wel. Maar ik let wel goed op mezelf. En zo meteen stap ik in de taxi en rijd naar het zwembad, want ik ben verslaafd aan aquarobics”.

Komt ze ooit nog naar Nederland?
“Zou ik best willen, want het is al zolang geleden! Ik weet niet eens meer wanneer het voor het laatst was! Maar ja, daar moet je eerst voor gevraagd worden, nietwaar?”

Marilyn Horne zingt ‘Somewhere’ uit Bernsteins West Side Story