Sunday, June 19, 2005

Carmen, Je T'Aime

I am not, as a rule, a big fan of historical recordings of complete operas. Emphasis on "complete"; historical recordings of excerpts of operas -- Caruso, Battistini, Ponselle, Pinza, the whole list -- are wonderful. But there were relatively few complete recordings of operas made before the mid '50s, and those that were made tended to have less than stellar casts, casts that were more representative of a good night in a repertory theatre than of something you'd want to hear over and over. Most of Gigli's complete recordings have one great singer (Gigli) and a lot of singers like Maria Caniglia or Toti Dal Monte who are representative of good, solid singing rather than Golden Age standards. I don't think the art of the complete opera recording really took off until the mid-'50s, when producers like Walter Legge and John Culshaw started trying to assemble casts with a really top-flight singer for each part, even the small parts, rather than casts that represented a typical night in Milan or Vienna or New York.

But the downside to that kind of starry casting is that it inevitably brings together singers who don't usually work together. (Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi had never performed Tosca onstage together at the time they recorded it.) And the upside of the repertory-theatre style of earlier opera recordings is that, at their best, they can give an idea of how an opera can go when performed by people who are all agreed on a particular style.

What I'm ramblingly leading up to is that my favorite recording of Bizet's Carmen, and indeed one of my favorite opera recordings of all time, is the 1950 recording by Andre Cluytens with the orchestra and chorus of the Paris Opera-Comique. This recording, currently available on the Naxos label in England and Canada (Naxos hasn't released it in the U.S. due to copyright issues), features an all-French-speaking cast, and an approach typical of the Opera-Comique and unlike any grand opera company. It was the first recording to use dialogue instead of the recitatives that Ernest Giraud wrote after Bizet's death, but the uniqueness of the approach has to do with more than just the dialogue. The whole company essentially approaches Carmen as a very serious musical comedy, or an exceptionally difficult operetta. Cluytens' tempos are fast; the orchestral textures are light and have the idiomatic sound of French orchestras of the era -- including a bizarrely wobbly way of playing the horn.

Everybody enunciates the words very clearly, and because they all know what the words mean, they can actually put some bite into their exchanges and even into the dialogue scenes. And Solange Michel, the Carmen, is nothing like the heavy-voiced, vampish Carmens in most recordings and performences; she is relatively light-voiced, takes advantage of all the opportunities to display the character's sense of humor, and doesn't start to darken her voice or her characterization until Carmen foresees her death in the card scene. The whole recording gives us Carmen as a lighthearted, fast-moving piece that turns dark in act 3 and becomes tragic at the end -- and though none of the singers are the best ever in their roles, collectively they give a better sense of teamwork, and of being one with their characters and the story, than any other recorded Carmen cast. That's the advantage of the idiomatic, home-team approach to recording opera.

The sound is, by the way, quite good for 1950, and this was one of the first opera recordings to include sound effects to indicate stage action (the producers may have overdone it, in fact, with the sound of dancing feet and castanets in the opening of act 2).

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