Bizet - Carmen
Les Petits Chanteurs de Versailles; French National Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra / Sir Thomas Beecham
EMI 567357-2 Buy now
(162’ · ADD · S/T/t)
Victoria de los Angeles sop Carmen; Nicolai Gedda ten Don José; Janine Micheau sop Micaëla; Ernst Blanc bar Escamillo; Denise Monteil sop Frasquita; Marcelle Croisier mez Mercédès; Monique Linval sop Mercédès; Jean-Christoph Benoit bar Dancaïre; Michel Hamel ten Remendado; Bernard Plantey bass Moralès; Xavier Depraz bass Zuniga
This classic Beecham set stands the test of time, sparkling, swaggering and seducing in a way that’s uniquely Beecham’s. It now comes in the EMI Great Recordings of the Century series, with brightened, freshened and clarified sound. As Richard Osborne points out in his brilliant, informative note, there were serious problems at the sessions – a second series was organised 15 months after the first (hence the two Mercédès) – but you would never realise there had been difficulties, either from the performance or the firmly focused, spacious recording in which the atmospheric offstage effects are vividly caught.
What’s so individual is the way that Beecham points rhythms to captivate the ear, as well as his persuasive moulding of phrases. Witness the sensuous way he coaxes the string phrase leading into the second half of the Don José/Micaëla duet in Act 2, ‘Parle-moi de ma mère!’ (disc 1, track 9, 3’47’). In those qualities Beecham is matched by Victoria de los Angeles in the title-role.
Osborne reveals that Beecham’s original choice of heroine was the Swedish mezzo Kerstin Meyer. After all, de los Angeles – Mimì in Beecham’s Bohème recording – is hardly an obvious candidate for such a fire-eating role. But there’s far more to Carmen than is conveyed in that conventional approach, and de los Angeles instantly establishes her as a seductive, provocative character with wickedly sparkling eyes. In her opening solo, the Habanera, her delicious downward portamento on ‘Je t’aime’ is irresistible. The Carmen quality which de los Angeles doesn’t have in her regular armoury, though, is a snarl. Instead she consistently uses her golden tone to tantalise and provoke, as in the magically sultry moment leading into ‘Là-bas, dans la montagne’ in her Act 2 duet with José just after the Flower song (disc 2, track 13). At that point Beecham, too, subtly pressing the music forward, is a fellow magician. Then at the very end, in Act 4, de los Angeles does finally muster a snarl in the culminating phrase ‘laisse-moi passer’ (‘Well stab me then, or let me pass’).
In a way, Nicolai Gedda’s portrait of Don José is just as remarkable. He was at his peak, and sings not just with refinement and imagination but with deep passion, leading you on in the widest expressive range in the Flower song. Janine Micheau makes a bright, clear Micaëla, very French in tone, and Ernst Blanc, if not the most characterful Escamillo, makes the bullfighter a forthright, heroic character, singing with firm, clear tone.
The rest of the cast, all French, make an excellent team, as is clear in ensembles: the sparkling account of the Act 2 Quintet or the opening of the Card scene, or the swaggering march ensemble as the smugglers depart in Act 3. A magic set now made all the more enticing in this mid-price reissue.