"Carmen" is a great opera to start one's introduction to the magical world that is opera. Georges Bizet wrote an opera with cohesive dramatic tension, finely-delineated characters, wonderful music, and pulsing energy. "Carmen" is truly a masterpiece. No wonder it is one of the most performed operas in the world's opera houses.
Maria Callas is one of the greatest sopranos of the past century. On this recording, we can see why. She is Carmen. There is none of the annoying bitchiness or overdone sexual flirtatiousness in her portrayal of the fiery, independent Gypsy that one gets so often with other interpreters of the role. Her phrasing is marvellous. Her French is surprisingly good. Not every "r" is rolled but that can be forgiven due to the fact that Callas was not a native French speaker. I wish there had been spoken dialogue included in this recording. It would have been a joy to hear Callas speaking French.
Callas does a great job with Carmen's ear-pleasing melodies. The "Habañera" is done at a faster pace than most other versions. It seems more appropriate with fast tempo than with the slow, ponderous tempo that one finds so often on other recordings. Callas' voice had deteriorated greatly by 1964, the year this recording was made. However, this opera's music rarely strains her voice. Carmen's mezzo-soprano tessitura is negotiated comfortably by Callas. Her dark voice and its strong chest register lend a haunting quality to the "Habañera" that seems perfectly appropriate. Her toying with Don José's emotions is totally convincing. Her rendition of the "Bohemian Dance" is very well done....Carmen is not a coloratura role. Callas' control of emotions is amazing. She never overacts in this role, which is a role that is too often acted in an overly melodramatic way. Her anger and defiance in the last scene are examples of her great mastery of vocal acting.
Gedda is an excellent Don José. He sings with honeyed tone and superb French diction. When he sings in French, he can do no wrong, unlike when he sings in Italian. He makes some very beautiful sounds. His sincere, dedicated singing makes his portrayal of the love-struck Don José totally convincing. His high notes in his big aria are very beautiful and well done.
The other singers do a fine job singing in their native tongue. Prêtre does a wonderful job conducting. He uses faster tempo than is normally heard in recordings of this opera, but he is totally correct in his decision to do so. Bizet's music sounds better and much more exciting when it is played fast than when it is played slow.