With little over 1200 seats the Opéra Comique is the perfect venue for Bizet’s Carmen which, truth be told has little comique in its tragic tale of the doomed love between a young Basque soldier and a Romani enchantress. But Bizet’s magnum opus, initially destined for a long life in its Parisian home turf, had legs, and walk it did right onto the major opera stages of the world, many much too large for it, when one considers how much more effective it is to enjoy Bizet’s masterpiece in a house where its original spoken dialogue can be heard and enjoyed.
This superb 1928 studio recording flawlessly re-mastered and digitally restored by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio and reissued by divine art (www.divine-art.com) in its HISTORIC SOUND (DDH27809) series is a sonically satisfying labor of love, especially when one considers that this Carmen dates back to the very early days of electric recordings. For practical reasons the recording deletes all spoken dialogue and the performance often cuts repeats, ostensibly to fit the musical numbers onto the side of an 78 RPM.
The singers are beyond reproach, beginning with Raymonde Visconti, a star of the Opéra Comique in the pre-war years, in the title role. The possessor of a supple, lyric mezzo-soprano voice, Madame Visconti is enticing when on the prowl, gamine when it suits her, utterly expressive 100% of the time, a true singing actress who communicates with her voice by putting words first at all times. She “nails” both the Habanera and the Seguidilla, rivets one’s attention in the Lilas Pastias scene, hypnotizes in the Card scene, and is deeply moving in the final scene.
Partnering her is the great Georges Thill, arguably the finest Don José of his generation. Thill has the ability to spin a seamless line in the Flower Song and then cap it with a stunning top B flat. A true lyric-dramatic singer Thill had the vocal reserves to match his Carmen dramatically and vocally in the confrontation in Act II, and in the final scene outside the bullring, and he could also sing like a boyish young fellow in his duet with Micaela, the enchanting Marthe Nespoulous.
The Escamillo is the excellent Louis Guénot, an elegant singer with the bravado to pull all stops in the Toreador Song. The quartet of gypsies is made up of sopranos Andrée Vavon and Andrée Bernardet, and tenors Robert Roussel and Téo Mathyl, four top- of- the-line comprimarios with beaucoup humor and impeccable diction that they show to advantage in the act II quartet. The other supporting singers are, sad to say, not credited.
The Orchestre Symphonique de Paris and the Chorus of the Opéra Comique are conducted by Elie Cohen, a house conductor who obviously knew his Bizet like the back of his hand, in a first class performance that lets one get a hint of how French opera ought to be sung.
Rafael de Acha