CAST: Carmen: Teresa Berganza, Don Josè: Placido Domingo, Micaëla: Ileana Cotrubas, Escamillo: Sherrill Milnes, Frasquita: Yvonne Kenny, Mercédès: Alicia Nafé, Le Dancaïre: Gordon Sandison, Le Remendado: Geoffrey Pogson, Moralès: Stuart Harling, Zuniga: Robert Lloyd, Andrès/Le guide: Jean Lainé, Une Marchande: Shirley Minty, Un Bohémien: Leslie Fyson, Lillas Pastia: George Main, Un Soldat: Richard Amner
The Ambrosian Singers
Chorus master: John McCarthy
George Watson’s College Boys’ Chorus
Chorus master: Patrick Criswell
London Symphony Orchestra
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990
This recording of Carmen under the conduction of Claudio Abbado has received mixed reception. From time to time, Abbado’s conduction or the performance of one of the singers (and of Teresa Berganza in particular) has been criticised sharply for some reason. Now it is my turn to say something about it.
Abbado conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with mixed success. Among the positive aspects of his conduction, I remember how he stresses the orchestral colours, painting authentic pictures in the Overture and in the Entr’acte between the first and second act and emphasizing in a particular way the darker and tenser side of Carmen as, for example, in the recurring theme that heralds Carmen’s death, or in the most excited moments, as the chorus of the cigar makers in the first act. Elsewhere, though, it seemed that the conduction loses incisiveness, mainly because of the choice of times, which are not always measured with care and sometimes suffers from a certain heaviness, as you can hear in the finale of the cards scene.
Teresa Berganza in the title role has aroused opposing and irreconcilable opinions, ranging from criticism to unconditional love. I place myself among those who were not satisfied by Berganza’s Carmen and I say it reluctantly, being an admirer of the Spanish mezzosoprano. Berganza’s voice is characterized by a clear timbre and a grace that have nothing to do, especially the second, with the charmer of the opera, of whom the singer not only rejects the sensuality, but also the strong and sometimes whimsical character, and frankly I do not find that these qualities have been replaced by the “majesty” that others admit, even among the detractors (to reproach it). Berganza’s performance inspires me coldness and I found her out of place. As an example, in the famous habanera, Berganza sings with a voice that does not resemble hers, as if she is searching for a colour to connote the character and cannot find it, so that this aria gives the impression of being whispered… and, despite my efforts, I cannot understand what the singer is trying to express in this way. In the rest of the album she seems to have a little more courage, but overall remains below her usual level.
Placido Domingo, on the other hand, is a dazzling Don Josè, who opposes to the hesitant character the most sonorous and expressive voice, making him extremely interesting and multifaceted. La fleur que tu m’avais jetée is sung at the beginning with more elegance that transport, which is perceived only after half of the aria, but it is in the most tense and agonizing moments that his greatness is revealed. In the finale of the third act, our attention is all for him from the moment he begins: «Ah! Je te tiens, fille damnée!» until the sentence of Micaëla, and then again in the threatening: «Sois contente, je pars, mais nous nous reverrons!», in which his singing, if I may say so, become uncompromising and does not allow distraction. In the final scene of Act IV, the tenor goes from despair, to anger and finally to an inconsolable grief with a simplicity that arouses only enthusiasm and admiration. The only, minor flaw is in his pronunciation, where, occasionally, some “e” sounds “i”, especially in the end of the words.
Ileana Cotrubas as Micaëla is very good, although sometimes not too clear in the French language, but this is easy to forget when you think of the sweetness with which she filled the duet with Don Josè at the beginning of the opera or the way she sings Je dis que rien m’epouvante, which assumes the character of a plea.
Finally, Sherill Milnes is a too much refined and polite Escamillo and lacks the spirit of the young and confident bully, but nevertheless he is vocally flawless. He redeems completely himself in Si tu m’aimes, Carmen, which he sings with deep feeling.