Bocelli, Domashenko, Mei, Terfel: Bizet Carmen: Better than
Dan Fee | Berkeley, CA USA | 03/27/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The band is French - Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. (A band that has been playing better and better and better, on some recent recordings, just spin the recent Mikko Franck Debussy disc, or some Messiaen readings under the leader of this Carmen.) The Korean-born conductor has long been a leading figure on the French musical scene: Myung-Whun Chung. The mezzo singing Carmen is Russian, Marina Domashenko. Superstar Bryn Terfel sings the toreador, Escamillo. The chorus is French, companion to the orchestra. Carmen's foil and contrast is the wholesome girl from the countryside, Micaela, sung by Eva Mei. Don Jose is the very popular crossover Italian tenor, Andrea Bocelli.
At a glance, this complete set strikes off musical Vanity Project sparks. It seems like a best bet for fans of Bocelli, and who else?
Well, there is the surprise bit. Chung's conducting is clean, bracingly shaped, forceful, and much more involved than many a famous musical jet-setting conductor name earning yet another nice paycheck. The band and chorus are indeed wide awake, even affectionate in their effective musical attentions. Marina Domashenko has the dusky chest tones to make quite an impression as Carmen the gypsy, nearly as much in love with risk and danger and whimsy as she can be with this man, that man, or the other man. (Or the still other man who hasn't even yet arrived on the scene.) Bryn Terfel is vocally equipped to be among the best-sung Escamillos on the current global stage. He has a huge voice like Simon Estes or Dimitri Hvorostovsky; yet he manages his voice with a sheen, a skill, a finesse which often escapes such large voices.
So what about Bocelli?
My reaction this time around is a lot like my reaction to Bocelli in the Verdi Requiem, also a complete recording. His tonal signature is instantly recognizable; but that may be a mixed blessing to most listeners except his most ardent fans who are listening for just, exactly that familiar Bocelli timbre. His singing is better than his pop cross-over appeal and marketing might otherwise suggest. His basic physical tone is woodier than, say, Giuseppe di Stefano. He has silver available at times in his voice, but not quite always at the heart or core of his given sound, though he can indeed go all sheen and silver towards the top of his vocal range. Bocelli at his best has a straight-forward, plain-spoken musical manner. Such plainness can be criticized as a lack of musical subtlety. Yet ...that plainness served him surprisingly well in the Verdi Requiem where he he was able to manage the higher tessitura with better lift, better phrase control than a cross-over pop reputation would predict. In the requiem, Bocelli more or less came across, more sincerely prayerful than grandly operatic, perhaps. He served his music, counting on what he had available, and to that musical extent, left a certain earnest musical mark.
Something quite similar may obtain for his work as Don Jose in Carmen. He still sounds more plain voiced than not, indeed like a fellow from some countryside who finds himself falling too hard too fast, for a hot-tempered gypsy like Carmen. He sounds just enough like an Opera-Comique Wozzeck being manipulated by his lieutenant and by the will and whimsy of the freewheeling and beautiful bad girl to be somewhat engaging, convincing. Bocelli's flower aria is not at all subtle, enthralled if at all, in a sort of clumsy masculine way - Familiar from the real countryside? Likely anathema to standard opera fans, so bull-in-a-china shop as Bocelli seeks to persuade his Carmen.
I thoroughly enjoyed Marina Domashenko as Carmen. Her wide-ranging mezzo voice is solid and beautiful, and she knows more or less what she is doing with her music and with her character, taking some vocal chances where others would be likely to play much safer. Is Domashenko the very greatest musical Carmen ever? Well, probably not, but she is no slouch either. For really great Carmens, I will also continue to cherish Victoria de los Angeles under Beecham, Grace Bumbry under Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Marilyn Horne under Bernstein, Maria Callas, Tatiana Troyanos, and similar. I'm leaving Domashenko on the keeper shelves for now. I suspect she's a long-time friend.
Ditto for Bryn Terfel as our star bull-fighter. He has one of the very great voices, and perhaps we would have pardoned him for just standing in, as much globe-trotting fame as voice, even if he hadn't bothered to put all that much into his assignment. Like Robert Merrill, he would not have been bad, even half-trying. Yet backed up by the precise, forceful men of the chorus who herald his arrival, Terfel's reading of Escamillo is archetypical suave, swaggering bravura-bravado. He enjoys working his crowd every bit as much as Domashenko does as Carmen working her crowds. He makes his confrontation with Don Jose in the gypsy mountains into much more than a filler interlude, needed more to heighten the impending doom than for its music.
I cannot go unhinged about Eva Mei's Micaela, mostly because I have yet to be all that taken with the part as such. Micaela does get some lovely music, but she seems to exist, more as a foil for the fiery Carmen than as a filled-out real countryside woman. Given the brevity of her character's appearances, Eva Mei does as well or better with Micaela than many others on recordings. Just sit back and enjoy her two big appearances, first in the duet with Don Jose when she brings him a letter and a kiss from his mother (okay, you in the back rows, stop laughing), and then in the prayerful solo as she seeks out Don Jose in the dangerous mountains to tell him that his mother is dying and wants a final earthly reconciliation. Chung partners her appearances with nuanced, alert playing from his band departments.
The smaller parts are also strongly cast on this recording. The lieutenant is more substantial than on many stage occasions. He can sing, not just project a stock opera character. Ditto, for the gypsies who have to really carry off the scene in Act Two, bringing Don Jose's post-prison appearance to a rousing close, right after Don Jose's default conversion to the gypsy smuggler's life. Not only are the individual voices strong, but their ensemble is just fine, thank you very much. An old theater saying tells us: There no small parts, only small players?
Finally the surprisingly strong musical-vocal impression of this Carmen rests on the musical leadership of our conductor, Chung. He holds things together, keeps the drama moving along, and generally doesn't slight many musical points and turning points, even if he is not overly indulgent of any of the several tempting chapters in this pot-boiling melodrama. Conductor, band, and chorus sound much more involved here, than other Carmen sets I can recall hearing. All in all, this set offers listeners a vivid Opera-Comique reading of this famous Bizet work. The spoken dialogue is abbreviated, its main impact being to let us hear spoken French, reinforcing the Opera-Comique flavors. Nobody among the principals is a native French-speaker - neither am I as listener. So I suspect that while all are trying with their French, no principal singer is all that refined - contrast with the spoken Opera-Comique dialogue to get a sense of a quibble.
Ah, the roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowd? Four stars. I know, I know, I know ... many deeply musical opera fans will rag on Bocelli, yet again. Still I'm happy to hear this Carmen. (Note to Bocelli: If you really are going to aim for opera keep coaching by all means - somebody who knows, constant with common vocal sense, as good as ear as you can find. The moment your coaches or mentors go fawning, dismiss them graciously till they recover their objective good sense.)"
Domashenko sings Carmen, not Bocelli!
David L. Reynolds | LA, CA USA | 04/20/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)
"From the billing on the front of the CD, one might think Bocelli sings Carmen, but no, he is indeed Don Jose. "BOCELLI - and some other people" has been the way these opera sets have been marketed for the last couple of years, This one was recorded five years ago. Why it took so long to appear is anyone's guess. And it's not for the obvious reason i.e. Bocelli is terrible. He's not. His performance is honest and reasonably well-sung. It is better than his recorded Werther which was entirely too loud. He has ringing top notes and provides a credible if somewhat faceless account of his role.
If anything, Marina Domashenko proves the star of the set as she should be since she sings the eponymous heroine. She sings very well with a rich, steady mezzo and inflects her lines with insight and passion. Domashenko won't efface memories of your favorite Carmens of the past, but her performance is honest, sensitive, and recognizably Bizet's Carmen.
Terfel sings well, if a bit roughly, and has no problem portraying Escamillo's fatuousness. He and Bocelli sing the extended version of their duet in the third act. Eva Mei is adequate as Micaela, but her quavery soprano won't win her any new fans. The excellent supporting cast is entirely French. There are snatches of dialogue to connect some of the musical numbers (spoken by the singers as far as I can tell), but if you don't already know the opera you might be a little confused as so much of the dialogue has been eliminated. There is very little "production" added to the music. Some will like that, but it gives the proceedings a feeling of a rather stiff concert performance. If it matters to you, Domashenko makes no sound when "stabbed" by Jose at the end.
Chung's conducting is spirited and often has a real sense of the opera-comique origins of the opera. The sound is serviceable, the orchestra and chorus rather more than that.
Not a bad job all around - we've had far worse. If you're a Bocelli fan, you'll like this. If you're a Carmen fan, you'll like Domashenko."