Opera Scotland

Carmen

Music
Georges Bizet (born Paris, 25 October 1838; died Le Bougival, nr Paris, 3 June 1875)

Text
Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.

Source
Nouvelle (1845) by Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870).

Premières
First performance: Paris (Opéra-Comique), 3 March 1875.
First UK performance: London (Her Majesty’s Theatre), 22 June 1878.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Prince of Wales’ Theatre), 3 March 1879.
Scottish Opera première: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 30 September 1986.

Background
Bizet’s masterpiece was more successful at its opening in Paris than any of his previous works. However the subject was controversial due to the perceived immorality of the plot. The original spoken dialogue was seen to restrict its attraction for non-French audiences, and after Bizet’s death Meilhac added words for a series of recitatives composed by Guiraud. In this form the opera quickly spread round Europe in the form of a grand opera, and this is how it was generally performed until relatively recently. There is now more frequently a policy of restoring the dialogue if the singers can cope with it or the performance is in the language of the audience. This generally increases the immediacy of the drama.

Characters
Moralès, a sergeant (baritone)
Micaëla, a peasant girl (soprano)
Don José, a corporal (tenor)
Zuniga, a captain (bass)
Carmen, a gypsy (mezzo-soprano)
Frasquita, a gypsy, Carmen’s friend (soprano)
Mercédès, a gypsy, Carmen’s friend (mezzo-soprano)
Escamillo, a toreador (baritone)
Le Dancaïre, a smuggler (baritone)
Le Remendado, a smuggler (tenor)

Plot Summary
The setting is the city of Seville and nearby mountains, around 1820. Some dragoons are outside their guardhouse. Micaëla, who has come in search of José, approaches them. She agrees to return later. The guard changes and José comes on duty. Carmen is among a group of girls from the cigarette factory. She flirts with José, throwing a flower at his feet before running into the factory. José has a brief meeting with Micaëla, who gives him a letter from his mother. But Carmen has been involved in a fight, injuring another woman in the factory, and José is delegated to take her to prison. She resumes her seduction attempt and he allows her to escape. A month passes, and at a nearby inn, after the triumphs of the toreador Escamillo have been celebrated, Zuniga tells Carmen than José has been released from prison. When the others have gone, José arrives and he and Carmen resume their flirting. However Zuniga returns, and in a jealous rage José attacks him. He is left with no option but to desert from the army and join the smugglers.

José chooses Carmen over Micaëla, who brings him the news that his mother is dying. Carmen soon tires of him and leaves him for Escamillo and the bright lights of Seville. José cannot accept this, and descending into madness he kills her outside the bullring.

RECORDINGS

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1975

Conductor: Georg Solti
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Tatiana Troyanos (Carmen), Placido Domingo (Don José), Kiri Te Kanawa (Micaëla).

Most of these performers sang in Carmen at Covent Garden around this time, although the LPO’s experience of playing it at Glyndebourne was several years in the future. The arrangement of the dialogue is generally satisfactory, and most of the singers manage it well, though they do not all sound particularly French. José van Dam is superb as Escamillo, and Kiri Te Kanawa sounds lovely.

DG (2 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1977

Conductor: Claudio Abbado
London Symphony Orchestra
Teresa Berganza (Carmen), Placido Domingo (Don José), Ileana Cotrubas (Micaëla).

This recording is based on the wonderful staging of Carmen by Piero Faggioni mounted at the Edinburgh Festival in 1977 to mark Peter Diamand’s retirement as director. Dress Circle tickets were priced at the staggering sum of £25! The special feature of this production was the great intimacy gained by using the King’s Theatre (Berganza had, it seems, been turning down offers from major houses for years). The performances saw numerous cast changes over the two runs, only Berganza singing every night. The recording was made in London a few months later, with some cast changes – Sherrill Milnes (Escamillo) and Robert Lloyd (Zuniga) did not appear in Edinburgh at all (though Lloyd had at least sung Zuniga at the King’s with Sadler’s Wells on tour in 1972).

EMI (2 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1964

Conductor: Georges Prêtre
Paris Opéra Orchestra
Maria Callas (Carmen), Nicolai Gedda (Don José), Andréa Guiot (Micaëla).

Callas is certainly different as Carmen. The role puts less pressure on her by now suspect high notes and allows her full rein to create a dramatic character, with lots of grinding chest tone. Gedda was by this time the world’s favourite ‘French’ tenor and is very stylish. Older viewers fondly remember the excellent Micaëla, Andréa Guiot, from her visit to Scottish Opera the same year for Marguerite in Faust. The traditional grand opera edition (published by Choudens) is used, and sounds a bit clunky, but it was unavoidable at the time.

EMI Classics for Pleasure (1 CD – excerpts) Sung in English Recorded 1961

Conductor: Colin Davis Sadler’s Wells Opera Orchestra Patricia Johnson (Carmen), Donald Smith (Don José), Elizabeth Robson (Micaëla).

This is a souvenir of Sir Colin Davis’s years at the helm at Sadler’s Wells. His French repertoire speciality was Berlioz, but his Bizet is fine. Patricia Johnson is a superb dramatic mezzo, who sadly spent most of her career in Berlin. As Micaëla, it is good to see the under-recorded Dundee-born Elizabeth Robson.

The Cast

Bohemian
 
Carmen
  a gypsy
Dancaïre
 a smuggler
Dancer
 
Don José
 a corporal of dragoons
Escamillo
 a toreador
Flamenco dancer
 
Frasquita
  a gypsy, Carmen’s friend
Guide
 
Gypsy
 
Lillas Pastia
 an innkeeper
Mercédès
 a gypsy, Carmen’s friend
Merchant
 
Micaëla
 a peasant girl
Moralès
 a corporal of dragoons
Officer
 
Remendado
 a smuggler
Zuniga
 a lieutenant of dragoons

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