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CD Review

Georges Bizet


  • Victoria de los Angeles, Carmen
  • Nicolai Gedda, Don Jose
  • Janine Micheau, Micaela
  • Ernest Blanc, Escamillo
  • Denise Monteil, Frasquita
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/Thomas Beecham
EMI 67353 1960
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Comparisons of sorts:

Complete Opera: Leonard Bernstein conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and chorus. Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Tom Krause. DG 427440 (nla?)
Truncated, English version: Leopold Stokowski conducting the Hollywood Bowl Symphony 11 July 1946. Winifred Heidt, Ramon Vinay, James Pease. Eklipse 31
Orchestral Segments: Leopold Stokowski conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra 1977 CBS MYK37260 (AAD)

Years ago I was listening to the local PBS station and happened upon a synopsis of this opera. It was "delivered" by Andy Griffith, using his best "good-ole' boy" hick accent. I was laughing so hard I almost had to pull over. What was really funny was that he "got" the story line beautifully. Wish I could find that piece today.

Anyway, Carmen is the first opera I ever saw that I liked. My first experiment was La Traviata and that almost was my last. A few months later, however, I went to the theater and watched the film version conducted by Mazell and starring Migenes-Johnson and Domingo. I actually liked it and the image it conveyed of Carmen still is the one I tend to use as a defining one. Her Carmen was earthy and real. She was full of spit and vinegar.

For a few years I have had the Bernstein recording in my collection. For some reason, however, I didn't like it. The arrival of this Beecham recording has afforded me the opportunity to revisit Bernstein and Stokowski, too. It has been a most enlightening experience and here I am sharing it with you. Man, that sounds pretentious.

I won't pretend to be an opera critic. After several listenings to all of the above, I am not going to tell you that any one or the other is a classic performance. My pool is too small. I can say that I enjoyed the Beecham more so than Bernstein. Lenny sounds just too calculated, though I love his Carmen. Beecham is more of an MGM production. I can see Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in the roles. It is a musical performance. The insert notes offer a fascinating discussion of the recording and you will be able to find out how later recordings, like Bernstein's, differed in context. Okay, the EMI notes tell us more about Beecham than Bizet, but the person who purchases this set will likely not be using it as an introduction to the work. I considered quoting several passages from the notes in this review, but you can read for yourself. It is well worth it.

I listened to Stokowski because I had this itch in the back of my mind that his recording was more exciting than either Beecham or Bernstein. The CBS (now Sony) AAD CD of orchestral excerpts confirmed this memory immediately. My God! I can imagine singers muttering, "If he thinks I can sing that fast, he's nuts!" It IS exciting, it is passionate, it is earthy. So, I wondered if, in fact, Stokowski took that pace in his modified, English version with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra. Now, I listened just a bit, mainly to get an idea of the tempo used. It is, in fact, as neck-breaking as the orchestral disc. I wish someone would properly master this recording so that I can truly judge the overall quality. Unfortunately, the transfer is so bad that the orchestra sounds like a bunch of kazoos. Don't even try to imagine how the soloists sound.

My current experience with the opera is somewhat more sophisticated than Andy Griffith, or maybe not. I can say that I enjoyed Beecham, as usual. Sir Thomas was one of the giants of the era of conductors. Some people may quibble that this is not a GROC, but I would quibble back. I like it more than Bernstein. The EMI remasterings are good, the sound is very "natural" and better than the spot-lit Bernstein. Beecham's is a musical performance, more so than Lenny. I am also sure it will offer an educational experience for listeners as they look at comparisons and contrasts. Learning is good.

Copyright © 2001, Robert Stumpf II