1972, Deutsche Grammophon
(Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Tom Krause, Adriana Maliponte; Manhattan Opera Chorus; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, cond. Leonard Bernstein)
Here we have yet another uneven Carmen that I can’t help but enjoy despite its flaws. Genius though Leonard Bernstein was, not everyone will approve of his eternally slow tempos and punchy dramatic climaxes here, or his use of the controversial Oeser edition with its array of departures from the traditional score. Nor will every listener appreciate the singers’ performances. This is a very American Carmen, both in accent and in atmosphere: unabashedly brash and characterized by loud, messy emotionalism. Yet there lies its appeal for me. From start to finish, this recording surges with theatrical flair. Each performer infuses the music and dialogue alike with character, and while the results are sometimes over-the-top and lacking in elegance, the drama is undeniably brought to life.
Eighteen years after dubbing Dorothy Dandridge’s singing in Carmen Jones, Marilyn Horne assumes the role proper of Carmen in an unforgettable performance. The voice that was so light and delicately seductive in the classic film has matured into the Horne sound more familiar to most opera lovers: a creamy, full-blooded, powerful mezzo that exudes strength and passion. A conventionally “sexy” sound it isn’t, but still it’s glorious, and it perfectly suits her characterization of a wild, laughing gypsy with tremendous zest for life and a red-hot iron will. Her Don José, James McCracken, fairs slightly less well: with his big, thick, ringing, sobbing tenor, he’s the type of verismo-style José deplored by critics who long for old-school French finesse. (Though he manages to sing the high B-flat in the Flower Song pianissimo, he only does so by resorting to falsetto.) But all the same, it’s hard not to be affected by the raw rage and pain of his heart-on-the-sleeve characterization. Tom Krause is a charming Escamillo with a smooth and attractive if sometimes heavy tone, while Adriana Maliponte’s Micaela is decent but nothing special, her spinto voice creamy but not very sweet. The supporting cast ranges from strong (Donald Gramm’s Zuniga, Colette Boky’s Frasquita and Marcia Baldwin’s Mercedes) to mediocre (e.g. Russell Christopher’s hammy, leaden-voiced Dancaïre).
I understand why some critics disdain this Carmen, but as far as I’m concerned it’s still worth hearing. While far from definitive, it still captures the lively, passionate heart of Bizet’s masterpiece.