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BIZET: Carmen

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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)


Among the great composers, perhaps only Borodin contributed as little to the active repertoire as Georges Bizet, and yet this talented but short-lived Frenchman will never be forgotten. His Carmen is the most popular of all operas, challenged only by Puccini’s La bohème. It is in the repertoire of every opera house and has been recorded innumerable times — it was one of the first operas to be recorded complete. Among the many films that have been made of it is one of the black Broadway version Carmen Jones with English lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. The irony is that Bizet himself did not live to see the success of his masterpiece and when he went to his grave, even his friends and supporters must have despaired of his reputation. One or two of his other operas, notably The Pearl Fishers, still have a slight hold on our attention, as do a handful of orchestral pieces, but to all intents and purposes he is a one-work composer.

The idea of adapting Prosper Mérimée’s novella into an opera came from Bizet himself. He had the services of the notable librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy — he was related to the latter by marriage — and they did a superb job. In some ways they expanded the original story, inventing the character Micaëla as a counterpart to Carmen and beefing up the toreador’s rôle; in other directions they contracted it, making the hero Don José’s downfall into a crime less degrading. Bizet himself made some contributions to the libretto and in writing the music he surpassed himself, with dazzling solo numbers, deftly tailored ensembles, ranging from the lofty style of the duet of Micaëla and Don José to the almost operetta mode of the famous quintet, and characterful choruses. At other points, for instance the Card Scene and the final confrontation between Carmen and the desperate Don José, he produced his most dramatic music.

The opera ran into trouble even during the rehearsals at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, with the chorus, required to act with previously unheard-of naturalism, going on strike at one point. The première on 3rd March 1875 was not well received and while it is easy to see that the subject matter must have appalled bourgeois opera-goers, who did not mind reading about such things but did not want to see them staged, it is strange to find that even the music did not please at first. The management, which had been courageous enough in putting the work on, stood by it and gave it 35 performances; but poor Bizet was dead before the end of the run. Another thirteen performances followed in the next season, and although the Opéra-Comique then dropped the work until 1883, it was soon wildly popular elsewhere. Even at the Opéra-Comique it passed its thousandth performance in 1905. The first singer of Carmen was Galli-Marié and other famous exponents have been Calvé, Farrar, Vallin, Supervia, de los Angeles and Berganza.

Outside France the opera was usually heard not with its spoken dialogue but with rather heavy recitatives composed by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud, whose well-intentioned work on the composer’s behalf also helped to make orchestral works such as the L’Arlésienne incidental music popular. The recitatives were used in most of the early recordings of Carmen. In due course the dialogue began to be reinstated but in 1964 a new edition of the opera insisted on second-guessing Bizet by restoring music that he, an excellent man of the theatre, had cut during rehearsals. Somehow Carmen survived all these assaults, but it is salutary to hear it in its proper form, performed by an authentic French cast under a great conductor. French singing has sadly declined over the past century but in 1950, when this recording was made, the style was still intact. The cast is not quite perfect, although Solange Michel is a wonderfully lively Carmen and Martha Angelici is exactly right as Micaëla. Raoul Jobin never really knew how to sing softly; all the same, his ringing tones, excellent diction and wholehearted commitment are welcome. Michel Dens, the great French baritone of the era, is not the bass-baritone required for the rôle of Escamillo but in other respects is ideal, and the supporting parts are taken by well-routined artists, so that the ensembles go with a swing. The singers themselves speak their dialogue, as they would on stage, which is another reason to be thankful for an all-Francophone cast. The direction of André Cluytens avoids the heaviness that has all too often been visited on this score. With each movement of his baton he seems to sweep away another encrustation of booming contraltos, blasting tenors and bellowing baritones, and his orchestra has the authentic French timbre that has all but vanished today.

Son of an opera conductor, André Cluytens (1905-67) was born in Antwerp and attended the Conservatory there from 1914 to 1922, emerging with a clutch of first prizes. For a decade he worked under his father Alphonse at the Théâtre Royal in his home town, as a répétiteur and then a conductor. He then made his career in France, rising through posts in Toulouse, Lyons and Bordeaux to head the Paris Opéra from 1944 and the Opéra-Comique from 1947 and becoming a French citizen. He was the first Franco-Belgian maestro to appear at Bayreuth (1955). He also had an important international career as an orchestral conductor. Although his last years were clouded by illness and he died when he was at his peak, he left many recordings, including a number of complete operas.

Solange Michel was born Solange Boulesteix in Paris in 1912 and after studies at the Paris Conservatoire began her career as a concert and radio soloist. Only in 1942 did she make her stage début, in Werther at Dijon. In 1945 she became a member of the Opéra-Comique company and soon was also taking major rôles at the Opéra, where she had earlier sung small parts. Her career lasted until the late 1970s. She was regarded as the finest contralto of her era in France and sang the rôle of Carmen more than seven hundred times, being acclaimed for her acting as well as her singing. She also appeared at Covent Garden, La Scala and various other European houses and took part in several complete opera recordings, as well as making a recital disc.

Martha Angelici (1907-73) was a Corsican; she was born at Cergèse and died at Ajaccio. After studies in Brussels she followed the same route to fame as Michel, singing in concert and on the radio throughout the Benelux countries. In 1936 she made her operatic début in Marseille as Mimì. From 1938 she sang at the Opéra-Comique and from 1953 also at the Opéra, making guest appearances in Brussels and Monte Carlo. She was acclaimed in the rôle of Micaëla, which she sang at La Scala with Karajan, and commanded a wide range of repertoire in concert. She made many recordings.

Raoul Jobin (1906-74), the leading French Canadian tenor of the 1930s and 1940s, studied in his native Quebec and then at the Paris Conservatoire, making both his concert and Paris Opéra débuts in 1930. After a spell back in Canada, he returned to the Opéra in 1934 and was a valued member of the company thereafter. He made his Covent Garden début in 1937 and from 1940 to 1950 was regularly engaged at the Metropolitan in New York, also singing with other companies in North and South America. He sang at the Opéra-Comique from 1946. Although he was best known in the French repertoire, Jobin also appeared with
Disc: 1
1 Act I: Prelude
2 Act I: Sur la place, chacun passe
3 Act I: Avec la garde montante
4 Act I: La cloche a sonne ...
5 Act I: Mais nous ne voyons pas la Carmencita!
6 Act I: L'amour est un oiseau rebelle
7 Act I: Carmen! sur tes pas nous nous pressons tous
8 Act I: Parle-moi de ma mere!
9 Act I: Au secours! au secours!
10 Act I: Tra la la la la la la la
11 Act I: Pres des remparts de Seville
12 Act I: Voici l'ordre
13 Act II: Entr'acte
14 Act II: Les tringles des sistres tintaient
15 Act II: Vivat, vivat le torero!
16 Act II: Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre
17 Act II: Nous avons en tete une affaire!
18 Act II: Halte-la! Qui va la? Dragon d'Alcala!
19 Act II: Je vais danser en votre honneur
20 Act II: Au quartier! Pour l'appel!
21 Act II: La fleur que tu m'avais jetee
22 Act II: Non! tu ne m'aimes pas!
23 Act II: Non! je ne veux plus l'ecouter!
24 Act II: Bel officier
Disc: 2
1 Act III: Entr'acte
2 Act III: Ecoute, ecoute, compagnon, ecoute!
3 Act III: Melons! Coupons!
4 Act III: En vain, pour eviter les reponses ameres
5 Act III: Quant au douanier, c'est notre affaire!
6 Act III: C'est des contrabandiers le refuge ordina
7 Act III: Je suis Escamillo
8 Act III: Halte! quelqu'un est la
9 Act IV: Entr'acte
10 Act IV: A deux cuartos!
11 Act IV: Les voici, les voici
12 Act IV: Si tu m'aimes, Carmen
13 Act IV: C'est toi! C'est moi!
14 Act IV: Tu ne m'aimes donc plus?
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