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).
ANNA CATERINA ANTONACCI, KAUFMANN AND PAPPANO
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)
AND WITH RICHARDS AND GARDINER
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.
ANNE SOFIE VON OTTER
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)
GERALDINE FARRAR IN BLACK AND WHITE
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.