Georges Bizet – Carmen
CAST: Carmen: Agnes Baltsa; Don Josè: José Carreras; Micaëla: Katia Ricciarelli; Escamillo: José Van Dam; Frasquita: Christine Barbaux; Mercédès: Jane Berbié; Le Dancaïre: Gino Quilico; Le Remendado: Heinz Zednik; Moralès: Mikael Melbye; Zuniga: Alexander Malta; Andrès: Michel Marinpouille ; Une Marchande: Anne-Marie Tostain; Un Bohèmien: Alain Pilard
Chœur de l’Opéra de Paris
Jean Laforge, chorus master
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1983
This Carmen has been recorded in 1983. It features some outstanding singers as Agnes Baltsa (Carmen), Josè Carreras (Don Josè), Josè van Dam (Escamillo) and Katia Ricciarelli (Micaëla). However, the recording is somehow sapped by Herbert von Karajan’s inconclusive conduction.
Agnes Baltsa: Carmen
The two protagonists are – together with van Dam’s fine Escamillo – among the best things of this Carmen. Agnes Baltsa in the title role is not impressive from the very first moment, but she reveals her potential with just a short delay. Even though the protagonist’s sensuous and charming temperament is clearly present in the Habanera, in this piece Baltsa lacks some self-assurance. Anyway, her great musicality allows her to sing quite smoothly and the warm timbre of her voice is perfect to sing Carmen.
The next two arias, the Seguidilla and the animated gypsy song, are definitely better. The mezzosoprano is also remarkable in the end of the second act, when she answers to Josè’s aria with Non, tu ne m’aimes pas, which is a wonder for the fluidity, easiness and naturalness with which she sings. Baltsa reveals another side of her heroine in the card scene, where she is able to give prominence to Carmen’s fear and pain in a remarkable way. At last, in the final scene, her Carmen is more determined, more independent than ever, with the only regret of some unfitting screams, as the one with which she accompanies the act of giving back the ring to Don Josè.
Josè Carreras: Don Josè
Josè Carreras is overall a fine Don Josè. Even though he is not always polite (some accents are a little too hurried), these flaws are little things in comparison with the softness of his singing, of the many pianissimi, smorzando and diminuendi with which he embellishes Don Josè’s duet with Micaëla and the famous aria La fleur. From Carreras’s singing, you can guess both the tender, kind side of the character (listen to his ecstatic «Ma mère, je la vois…» in the duet with Micaëla or to the sweetness with which he addresses Carmen in his aria), but also his recklessness, especially after Carmen’s abandonment. Overall, Carreras’s Don Josè is a round character, able to stir the listener.
Josè van Dam: Escamillo; Katia Ricciarelli: Micaëla
Josè van Dam is an outstanding Escamillo, who has all the qualities required by the undaunted toreador. His large, ringing voice and his boldness are milestones in the recording history of Carmen. The toreador song is riveting and in the duel scene with Don Josè van Dam’s Escamillo is intrepid, even daring.
It seems that every time Katia Ricciarelli records an opera with Karajan, she is casted for a role that does not show her at her best. When she sang the title role in Turandot, her voice was quite unsuitable to sing the ice princess, but her performance is adequate, thanks to her innate sensitivity and taste, which remedy somehow to her flaws. However, Ricciarelli is much more suitable as Micaëla than as Turandot. Her lyricism and sensitivity, coupled with her silvery timbre, are enough to give prominence to Micaëla’s frailty and gentleness, even though she opens up her high notes with an unpleasant effect.
As for Herbert von Karajan’s conduction, honestly it is a dark horse for me. Apart from the liveliness of the choral scenes, of the Ouverture, of the Aragonaise and to pivotal scenes as the gipsy song, where you can come to the conclusion that he is trying to give an idea of joie de vivre and freedom (which are some of the main themes of Carmen, after all), there is not a clue to understand what the conductor’s aim is.
There is not enough “darkness” to balance the “optimism” of those scenes. The sense of tragedy rarely appaears in this Carmen and often it is limited to the points where it is more obvious: in the second part of the Ouverture, in the card scene and of course in the final scene from Act IV. In this way, however, the “tragedy” seems quite apart and difficultly compatible with what is going on for the rest of the time.
To complete the general picture, it is necessary to strike a blow for Karajan’s fine representation of quiet moments as the duet between Micaëla and Don Josè and in Micaëla’s aria. These are among the best passages of Carmen. However, they are not enough to make you forget the impression of incongruence and irregularity. This opera works better when you think of some passages rather than of the general point of view. Carmen has never been Karajan’s opera, but in this 1983 recording his uncertainty is manifest.
The present recording of Carmen is not the best ever made, but it is quite good overall. The greatest regret is that Karajan’s conduction was not a little more incisive and homogenous. On the singers’ part, anyway, there are many things to appreciate, especially for what concerns Agnes Baltsa, Josè Carreras and Josè van Dam. It is especially for them that his Carmen is outstanding.