Bizet: Carmen

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Carmen
PERFORMER: Patricia Bardon, Julian Gavin, Garry Magee, Mary Plazas; Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, New London Children’s Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry
Carmen without a genuine Carmen is Spain without the corrida. And Carmen is a mezzo-soprano who needs a smoky chest register to convey the incendiary charms of the gypsy cigarette girl. But Angela Gheorghiu is a soprano, and no amount of special pleading about artistry and good looks can hide the fact that hers is the wrong voice for the role. In the celebrated ‘Habanera’ – the ‘Seguidilla’, too – Gheorghiu is rarely on top of the music, and vibrato is not the same as characterisation.


Over on Chandos the Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon’s ‘Habanera’ shimmers with sex as the voice leans voluptuously into the beat. If there’s a single fault it’s that Bardon pushes her top too hard, resulting in a coarsening of the tone. Her Don José, Julian Gavin, is handsome, too, a proper lyric tenor who relishes the sweetness of ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’, or rather ‘The flower you threw me’, since Chandos’s Carmen is part of its admirable ‘Opera in English’ series. And in any contest with Roberto Alagna’s Don José on EMI Gavin wins on much more than points. Alagna gives this Spanish loser his Italian heroic all when a French tenor is what’s required. This is Bizet not Puccini. As for the Escamillos it’s a draw with Thomas Hampson stylish but detached on EMI and Garry Magee more of a swaggerer for Chandos.

EMI, with a strangely pedestrian Michel Plasson in the pit, opts for sung recitatives. And there’s also a dubious bonus: Carmen’s original opening aria with the same text as the ‘Habanera’, but set to a pleasant though rather four-square Bizet melody. Chandos, on the other hand, gives us spoken dialogue, which makes good sense for an English-language recording, but also, rightly, returns the work to its opéra comique roots.


Those who have yet to collect Bizet’s gypsy might be better served by Thomas Beecham’s vintage recording with Victoria de los Angeles (a soprano, true, but a voice with bottom) or Agnes Baltsa for Herbert von Karajan. However, unrepentant Carmenophiles may well be unable to resist David Parry on Chandos. Christopher Cook