Carmen:
From Comedy to Tragedy

 


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CARMEN: FROM COMEDY TO TRAGEDY

-- Geoffrey Riggs

 

I find I've reassessed a few Carmen sets over the years. While I still admire the Beecham set, I believe I would slot the Cluytens recording above it as my first choice today.

ORCHESTRA: Paris Opera Comique Orchestra
CONDUCTOR: Andre Cluytens
ARTISTS: Solange Michel, Raoul Jobin, Michel Dens, Martha Angelici
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: recorded 1950

I plead guilty to preferring the lighter, more "Gallic", approach to this piece.

I've noticed that Carmen preferences can get terribly personal. For once, the old cliche, "one man's meat is another man's poison," applies. For instance, I've read highly articulate retrospectives that all-too-cogently praise the Price/Corelli set, which is the epitome of the international grand-opera approach, to the skies, while terming this Michel/Jobin/Cluytens recording, which represents the more contained Gallic approach, "second-tier" automatically -- because it does not adopt the "necessary" vocal and orchestral heaviness for this "grand" work. Granted, opinions so well-formed are to be respected, yet equally thoughtful and articulate commentators will praise the Michel set and condemn the Price.

Please note this is not the kind of criticism based on an assessment of a select group generally considered the upper tier in any case -- the way, for instance, the Price/von Karajan Tosca or the Caniglia/Gigli Tosca or the Milanov/Corelli Tosca broadcast will all get mentioned once one puts aside the famed De Sabata Tosca. The Tosca discussion thus turns on the *relative* value of a few highly select sets that most will cite anyway.

Such is not the case with Carmen. For one thing, it's hard to imagine any two more different sets than the Michel and the Price. And this difference of outlook in viewing these two sets expands geometrically when one realizes that different sets of listeners are clearly looking at the work from diametrically opposed viewpoints. Inevitably, one whole class of recordings will be glorified at the expense of another.

I'm not gainsaying that a few commentators won't still place the value of different Carmen recordings in context, being careful to distinguish among the various performing schools, thus assessing the value of each Carmen as it compares strictly to others of the *same* style (the sensible approach, I believe) rather than to a single Procrustean ideal in the commentator's head. But such cool heads seem a rare exception, I find. By and large, Carmen "must be" either the grandest and splashiest and most extravagant of grand operas or it "must be" the most insouciant and brisk example of "Gallic" finesse. It can't be both, claim the absolutists on both sides.

Arguments like this can get even more heated when it comes to the assumptions surrounding the leading lady. Is she elegant or vulgar? Is she offhand or intense? Is she sunny or brooding? Believe me, I have read passionate assessments suggesting that she is each of these -- exclusively..............and more............. Try to make sense out of that!

That said (since, goodness knows, I can be as guilty of being dogmatic as the next guy), although I'm a fan of the Gallic style, I can still enjoy the grand-opera approach if done with heart and due care for truthful expression. The Stevens/Reiner set, for instance, which is an example of the grand-opera approach, also has, IMO, "truthful expression" as one of its clearest goals, something I do not sense it the offensive pretentiousness and bombast that, IMO, mars the Price/Karajan.

There is another pesky question that rears its head with Carmen, and it plays into the international versus Gallic debate: Ernest Guiraud's recitatives composed after Bizet's death and made popular first in Vienna and then throughout the world.

One of the ingenious aspects of Carmen's original music-and-dialogue structure, IMO, is the way the percentage of music grows higher and higher as the drama gets correspondingly more and more serious. Played straight, as in the Cluytens -- *the* classic set, IMO, for the original with dialogue -- the first act can comes off as (almost) comedy. That is genius, not a flaw. If we view the work that way, as an audience experiencing it for the first time, we are seduced into a sunny picture of disreputable goings-on where a laugh seems never far below the surface. Are we wrong! -- and wonderfully so! We don't quite know what Bizet is cooking up for us -- parallelling Jose's own unawareness of what being "Carmen's man" will entail. Like Jose trapped by Carmen, we only know what Bizet has in store for us when it's too late.........and we're hooked! Let's face it: that last act is masterly from beginning to end -- and there's not a word of dialogue anywhere in it. This traversal from comedy to tragedy is mirrored expertly in the Cluytens and is what makes this recording such a revelation.

Once we experience what I call the Vienna version instead, the element of surprise is greatly diminished, IMO. I find the Guiraud recits anticipate by too much the world of the last two acts. Not only does that remove the element of surprise; it makes the entire work a grander, consistently more tragic piece. Not necessarily a bad piece; but a very different one. Guiraud has made the piece a far more overt picture of fatal doom from the outset -- not to mention the fact that the offhand quality in certain critical exchanges have now been jettisoned.

The Cluytens remains the classic, IMO, if one wants to be convinced, on an artistic level, of the worth of Bizet's original "sneaky" conception. The Beecham is the most consistently sung among the "grand-opera" sets with the Guiraud recits. I now prefer the Cluytens most of all.

 

--Geoffrey Riggs

 

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ENRICO CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

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DON CARLOS -- RANDOM JOTTINGS

DONIZETTI AND BRINKMANSHIP

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THE TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)

MEISTERSINGER ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

RECALLING ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)

PARSIFAL ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

HISTORY OF OPERA IN MINIATURE

RICHARD TAUBER (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

VIOLETTA IN LA TRAVIATA

PARTIAL OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD

IL TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

UPCOMING SINGERS

 

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The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797 - 1847 NEW BOOK

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BAYREUTH BROADCASTS 2003 INTERNET RADIO FOR SIMPLETONS | INTERNET RADIO FOR TECHIES

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