Bizet: Carmen

COMPOSERS: Bizet
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Carmen
PERFORMER: Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Mirella Freni; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna PO/Herbert von Karajan
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 39495 2 ADDReissue
Here are ten of the world’s most popular operas, recorded by RCA at various times, mostly in the Seventies, though Carmen and Madama Butterfly date from the early Sixties. The tenors singing opposite the imperishable Leontyne Price in those earliest two recordings are Franco Corelli (Carmen) and Richard Tucker (Madama Butterfly), but thereafter Price (the soprano in six of the ten operas) is partnered by the almost equally long-lasting Plácido Domingo, who is in seven of the ten, as is Sherrill Milnes. For many years this soprano-tenor-baritone team virtually constituted an RCA repertory company.

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Carmen is very grand and Viennese, with Karajan conducting a somewhat too stately performance. Price is a highly dramatic Carmen, Mirella Freni contributes a most sensitively sung Micaëla, and Corelli sounds glorious, though he is not the most elegant of Don Josés. The recorded sound is rich, and the Vienna Philharmonic is at its most sumptuous, but for an authentically French Carmen one must look elsewhere. Much more satisfying is the 1963 Butterfly with Price a sympathetic heroine, Tucker appropriately cast as Pinkerton, and Leinsdorf conducting strongly and briskly.

The other two Puccini operas fare equally well. Mehta conducts Tosca with utmost conviction, Price is a full-blooded Tosca, and Domingo brings dignity as well as vocal splendour to Cavaradossi. Sherrill Milnes’s sinister Baron Scarpia is thoroughly believable, and the smaller roles are all vividly characterised. La bohème, as conducted by Solti, occasionally sounds rather more frenetic than it needs to, but the more tender moments of the first and last acts are sensitively handled. Montserrat Caballé sings Mimì exquisitely, and Domingo’s gloriously sung Rodolfo is most appealing. Milnes is a likeable Marcello – he makes more of the role than many baritones do – and Judith Blegen a colourful Musetta.

This Andrea Chénier is my preferred recording of the opera. Conducted with dramatic urgency by Levine, it has an eloquent Maddalena in Renata Scotto, with Domingo a well-nigh perfect Chénier and Milnes contributing a strongly characterised Gérard. The smaller roles are all strongly and vividly performed, and the recording is exemplary. Levine is equally successful with Cavalleria rusticana, of which he gives one of the most compelling accounts available on disc. Scotto and Domingo bring Santuzza and Turiddu excitingly to life.

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Now, the four Verdi operas. James Levine is one of the great Verdi conductors of today, and his Otello does full justice to a wonderful score. In 1978 Domingo’s Moor was a fiercely riveting performance, and Scotto brings beautiful tone and dramatic intensity to Desdemona. Leontyne Price, the supreme Verdi soprano of her time, is at her best as the Leonoras of Il trovatore and La forza del destino, and unsurpassed as Aida. Domingo is not by nature a Manrico (Trovatore), but he is in his element as Alvaro in Forza (and Milnes is a fine Don Carlo). In addition to Price, Aida has Domingo and Milnes on top form and Grace Bumbry as a formidable Amneris. Charles Osborne