An Historic Live Karajan 'Carmen'
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 12/07/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"How many recordings of 'Carmen' did Herbert von Karajan make? I don't know for sure, but can recall versions with, as Carmen, Grace Bumbry, Leontyne Price and Agnes Baltsa. I suspect there may be more pirated 'Carmens' out there. This one, though, is no pirate. It's from a master tape in the archives of the Vienna Symphony and Austrian Radio -- and I'd heard it before in an awful tape many years ago; almost certainly that one was a pirate -- and it became something of a legend in its time. Recorded in concert - live, but in concert, not staged - in 1954 in, of course, mono sound (and pretty good it is, too, for its time), it brought several artists from La Scala (where Karajan had led staged versions of the opera) to Vienna for a gala concert. The singers featured are Giulietta Simionato as Carmen, the 29-year-old Nicolai Gedda as Don José, Hilde Gueden as Micaëla, Michel Roux as Escamillo, and a very young Graziella Sciutti as Frasquita. The secondary characters were primarily from La Scala (Luisa Ribacchi as Mercédès, Gino del Signore as Dancaïre, Mario Carlin as Remendado, Enzo Sordello as Moralès) and the young Viennese basso Frederick Guthrie as Zuniga. A very fine cast.
I frankly had some question about whether Simionato had the voice or temperament to sing Carmen; she has always been best known for heavy Verdi mezzo parts. But from the very first my doubts were allayed. She was very young at the time, her voice was lighter and quite flexible. She handles the little turns at cadences, as in the Seguidilla, with grace and style. And she makes a sexy Carmen, a sine qua non for the part after all. My only criticism of Simionato is her mushy French diction. As for Gedda's Don José, I can't praise it highly enough. He, too, has a lighter voice than one often hears in the part. But his French is idiomatic, he is an exceedingly stylish singer who also can convey the drama of the part. His Flower Song is wonderful. The upward run that ends the aria is marked with a decrescendo but one almost never hears it sung that way. Gedda does it beautifully, swelling only on the topmost note after he has begun it softly. His voice convincingly conveys José's heartbreak in the final scene. Michel Roux is more than adequate as Escamillo and his entrance aria, the famous Toreador Song, is sung lustily. Hilde Gueden, known primarily for her delicious portrayals of Strauss and Mozart roles, is excellent and, what's more, believable as Micaëla. Her initial scene ('Parle-moi de ma mère') with Gedda is a casebook of marvelous singing.
The big thing here, though, is Karajan's conducting. He was only forty when this performance took place in Vienna's Grosser Saal on October 8, 1954. He had not yet begun his transition into the marmoreal conductor he later became. The most notable thing here is his crisp tempi, sharp articulation, supple phrasing -- the orchestral interludes are played with beauty and immediacy -- and his unfailing support of his singers. I don't know why he inserted the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2 into the fourth act but it is more strange than disruptive. This is a beautifully conducted Carmen, not like his soporific last recording with Baltsa. It's a young man's Carmen.
The then-usual Guiraud recitatives are used, not the since more-common Oeser edition. This bothers me not a bit, as it's the version I grew up with. The chorus, the fine Singverein des Musikfreunde in Wien, sings marvelously. One has to tip one's hat to their handling of the lightning fast French text. It had not quite become usual, in Vienna in those days, for operas to be presented in the original language, so the chorus can't have been terribly comfortable singing in French, but they do it marvelously.
The sound is mono, of course, but it is quite good for its era. I think there has been some cleaning up of the sound by Andante's engineers, but I don't note any loss of quality and it is certainly better sound than that execrable tape I heard all those years ago.
This obviously should not be anyone's only recording of Carmen, but for magnificent singing and for the conducting of Karajan when he still had some life in him, this one suits, as does the budget price.
Karajan is surprisingly inert, and Carmen sounds flat
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 11/01/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)
"As the first reviewer notes, this 1954 concrt broadcast of Carmen form Vienna has been knocking around on pirate labels for years. It seemed an exciting event for Andante to issue it from the original Radio Austria tapes. But in the end the effort wasn't worth it. Simionato was young at the time, but she seems too ripe and has little enthusiasm for the role -- given how lusty she is in Verdi, this stroll in the park is shocking (at least she catches fire in Carmen's death scene). Gedda is fine, if a little tepid himself, but in the end what sinks this production is Karajan's indifference to French style, and his utter lack of involvement in the drama. I had high hopes and feel quite disappointed, yet Carmen has been well served on records, so thre are any number of delightful versions (Callas-Pretre, De los Angeles-Beecham, and Bumbry-Fruhbeck de Burgos are personal favorites) to offer consolation."