on 17 July 2014
How wonderful to have this set back in circulation. Although perhaps not as well known in Europe as other singers, the cast represent some of the finest singers ever produced by the US. Rise Stevens had a long and distinguished career in a variety of roles, but during the 40s and 50s she was Carmen and this recording catches her at her lustrous best. She is matched in this recording by the Don Jose of the excellent Jan Peerce, as stylish and musical as he always was. Robert Merrill provides a solid and well-sung Escamillo. Licia Albanese may not be the smoothest Micaela on disc, but she sings with great charm and musicality. The rest of the cast is made up of Met stalwarts of the period and the whole performance is presided over by the master Fritz Reiner, one of the greatest conductors of the 20th Century. All in all, highly recommended.
I thought 'd try this celebrated 1951 vintage recording now that it has been re-mastered in 24 bit sound and was also recommended to me by a fellow Amazonian.
It is indeed very good, and apart from some peaking and screeching in ensembles and on loud, high notes, it has come up very well; the casual listener would hardly be able to hear at first that this is merely mono, the depth and balance is so good, with the merest hiss.
However, French it isn't. That's not necessarily so bad; other favourite versions by Karajan, with which this most readily compares,being grand and large-scale, aren't especially Gallic either and tend towards Italianate verismo, but if Karajan's set is as French as Wiener Schnitzel than this recording is as French as a Papaya King hot-dog, being an almost all-American - indeed all New York City - undertaking. First, the French is Standard Sung International and of course we hear the old Guiraud recitatives; Jan Peerce has the most idiomatic accent and Robert Merrill's and Risë Stevens' is pretty good, even though she pronounces the "n" in words like "entre", while Licia Albanese's French isn't very impressive either. There are a couple of weak appearances in the supporting cast: a tremolo-ridden Frasquita and a dull Zuniga but generally it's a good ensemble and we do have the children choir from the local Lycée to add authenticity. What a sobering thought that all the members of that chorus will now be in their seventies.
Nor is Stevens' Carmen French in the refined and lady-like manner of Berganza, von Otter or Kozena; this is the smoky, sultry, sexy Carmen of the old-fashioned, slutty type and as far as I'm concerned, all the better for it. Stevens' vibrant Carmen is closest to that of Leontyne Price; she has a powerful lower register, basically sings the part straight and gives the role real presence. Her top notes can be a tad sour but vocally she is in fine estate - and boy, didn't she look the part!
Her Don José is the still under-rated Jan Peerce. He is in his finest, most youthful voice and often sounds uncannily like his brother-in-law Richard Tucker but without the latter's tics and mannerisms.He is sometimes a little nasal but that makes him sound more authentically French, more like another in the line of French lyric-heroic tenors now extinct, such as Thill, Vezzani, Jobin and Chauvet. He sings with taste and can be either powerful or restrained as necessary; his concluding duet with Stevens is impassioned and convincing.
Robert Merrill is also in finest, most virile voice; his Toreador really swaggers and has charm, too; his "Si tu m'aimes" duet with Carmen goes beautifully. For me, the weakness amongst the principals is Albanese's rather breathy, matronly Micaëla, who should sound pure, innocent and naïve. This part is often under-cast - it's the case with the otherwise splendid Maazel recording of the film with Migenes-Johnson and Domingo, still my first choice - and we have been spoiled by hearing the likes of Cotrubas, Guiot, Freni and Te Kanawa make such a success of it.
Reiner and his band are first -rate; the Entr'actes are very atmospheric and he generally gives a Spanish flavour to proceedings. The dances from "L'Arlésienne" interpolated into Act IV are charming.
The set is rather extravagantly laid out onto three CDs as the duration is only two and a half hours but that means you have the first two Acts on a CD each and the final two on the third one, so no irritating breaks. OK; there are more authentic versions and this doesn't displace Gallic classics by Beecham or Cluytens but it's a fine production nonetheless. My first recommendation remains the later Maazel recording.
on 24 July 2014
Finally, the 1951 RCA "Carmen" has been properly remastered. Glorious mono, and the best Carmen, ever, Rise Stevens. Jan Peerce as Don Jose. His nasal cantorial sound was always perfect for French opera. And, the great Robert Merrill as Escamilio. And, I prefer the sung recitatives rather then the spoken dialogue. It keeps things moving. You need this recording!