Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Carmen: High and Low

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On February 11, 2017, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast via radio its matinee of Carmen. Only Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Aïda surpass Carmen in number of Met performance, one thousand and counting. 

Bizet is, together with Ruggero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni, one of only three composers of multiple operas to have just one of his many titles boast a place in the standard repertory, and so prominant a place to boot. Pagliacci ranks ninth; Cavalleria rusticana tenth. Other of the composers’ operas, Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, for example, or Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, or Leoncavallo’s Zazà make it to the bills of international houses only sporadically.

Carmen was performed by the Met during the company’s first season, 1883-1884, in Italian, and then in German until 1891. It did not come into its own, however, until the management saw its way to the original French and brought together a cast--Emma Calvé, Jean de Reszke, Emma Eames, and Jean Lassalle—described by the Times as “near to justifying the epithet ‘ideal.’” Calvé set what still stands as the single-season record for a singer in a single major role, thirty-one performances. Abandoning all restraint, the exigent New York critic, Henry Krehbiel, called hers “the most sensational triumph ever achieved by any opera or singer.” We hesitate to include a clip of Calvé’s Carmen here; the poor quality of early recordings does not do her voice justice. You can find a number of her arias on Youtube.

Until the 1930s the Met’s star sopranos, Calvé, Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, and Rosa Ponselle in turn, claimed Carmen for themselves. Occasionally a mezzo-soprano would have a go at the part. The role’s range accommodates both higher and lower voice types. The darker or lighter timbre is each congenial in different ways to the character’s shifting moods. In the 1940s, a mezzo-soprano, Risë Stevens, tilted the balance to the deeper voice. Photographed in ads for Camels and Chesterfields brandishing Carmen’s signature cigarette, occasionally cast in the movies and frequently heard on the radio, Stevens was one of the most widely recognized classical artists of the period. Since she first took on the role (she sang it 124 times for the Met, second only to Calvé), Carmen has belonged nearly exclusively to the mezzo.




Here are clips of two of Carmen’s arias, the “Habanera” and the “Gypsy Song.” The “Habanera” is sung first by American soprano Leontyne Price. This excerpt is drawn from a complete recording of the opera, her sole assumption of the role. For purposes of contrast, Price is followed by Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova in a live performance at the Vienna State Opera. Price binds the notes of the music’s coiling phrases in a hypnotic, silvery legato. Obraztsova conveys the character’s humor and appeal in the warmth of her sound.



French soprano Régine Crespin’s “Gypsy Song” comes from a complete recording of the opera. Again, for purposes of contrast, American mezzo Maria Ewing is here excerpted from a live performance from Glyndebourne. Crespin foregrounds the elegance of Bizet’s music with a voice both sumptuous and finely focused. For Ewing, the aria is not a showpiece, but rather a fierce expression of Carmen’s independent nature. In this emphatic public moment, the mezzo succeeds in inviting us into her private thoughts.



Postscript

For eight seasons, beginning in 1914-1915, Geraldine Farrar sang sixty-five performances of Carmen, all but four of the company’s total in this period. Her charisma, beauty, and stagecraft led to a sustained Hollywood career, beginning with Cecil B. De Mille’s silent adaptation of Carmen. In her screen debut, Farrar exhibits the flashing dark eyes, the beguiling smile, the supple body, and the singularly uninhibited presence that defined her in the opera house. Alas, her movies predate the 1926 advent of the “talkies.” Here is a clip that weds the soprano’s image to her earlier recording of the “Gypsy Song.”
  



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