Carmen - The Opera of the Century

Leonard BernsteinLeonard Bernstein
Marilyn HorneMarilyn Horne
James McCrackenJames McCracken

Flop then top! Bizet’s spectacular opera Carmen shared this initial fate with several other important works in the course of music history. But how is it that this monumental opéra comique, which deals with such piquant, everlasting subjects as jealousy, carnal passion and love, found little approval? As one can read, one reason was that the character Carmen, who couldn’t care less about bourgeois values, was considered scandalous by the Parisian public. Another reason was that Bizet’s compatriots accused him of “Wagnerism”, although the form – in contrast to the through-composed form – followed the traditional number opera and the melodies and harmonies had a distinct French tone. If it is a little Wagnerian, then in the form of the inimitable minor key of the Carmen theme, which weaves its way through the opera like a leitmotif. And just as the score refuses to be defined to this day, its heroes also remain elusive. First and foremost we have the cantankerous Carmen, who stands for self-determination and freedom – but also free love, which Friedrich Nietzsche praised as »love translated back into nature«, and (with a dig in the ribs at Wagner) certainly »not the love of a higher virgin«.
The aesthetic discussions of the storyline dealing with labourers, demimonde and corrupt police were highly controversial, and to the same measure the important recordings of this opera are highly different – incomparable even. The acclaimed and unquestionably compelling recording of our time by Bernstein refuses to be respectful. Quite unlike Karajan or Beecham, he chooses slow tempi with bursts of emphatic compact drama. Marilyn Horne in the title role avoids an obvious performance as a femme fatale, choosing to concentrate on the demonic and devilish sides of the fiery character, yet not forgoing an erotic sparkle. James McCracken, with his characteristic voice, convincingly portrays Don José as a sensitive man who gradually turns criminal and with desperate determination turns to murder. The toreador Escamillo is admirably interpreted by Tom Krause while the Manhattan Opera Chorus performs the ensemble scenes with rousing bravura.
Whether this Deutsche Grammophon production, in the spirit of its heroes, is to be admired as »daring and provocative« (New York Times) or even as the »Recording of the Century« (HiFi Stars) is open to debate. More important is the realisation that Carmen doesn’t go by the book.

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