Bizet: Carmen/Domingo/Vienna DVD

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Q: Who knew this existed? A: Austrian Broadcasting. Yes, it’s been in their “vaults”, waiting for who-knows-what, and just last year they asked Carlos Kleiber–a “great but difficult man”–if they might release this video, and he agreed. And then he died. Here it is, the opening night of Carmen, from December 9, 1978, which was telecast in Austria two days later. And indeed, it’s quite an event, a Franco Zeffirelli production to end them all, with so many people on stage milling about, dancing, interacting, and running that even Carmen herself occasionally gets lost in Act 2, with an additional cast of horses showing up at strategic, opulent moments. In fact, aside from the unstoppable busy-ness, the opulence is just fine, with the first act properly languid and sensual, Lillas Pastia’s Tavern quite a fun-filled, expensive dive, the Smuggler’s Hideout (with very well-dressed smugglers) as mountainous as it should be, and a final act that catches the noon-day sun, the mania of the bullfight, and somehow, time for a brief flamenco-like ballet interlude.

Zeffirelli also directed for TV and his choices are wise and dramatically apt. It doesn’t hurt that his cast looks good and is comfortable on stage. Zeffirelli sees Carmen as a lusty, sort-of dopey, not-very-wicked, skirt-twirling wench who believes what she feels when she feels it (she really does seem to want to go away into the mountains with Don José in Act 2), but who somehow turns serious when the cards tell her she’s going to die in Act 3. From then on, she’s the fatalist we know, and a pretty nasty one at that. Not that it matters.

As suggested, the true value of this set is the elusive Kleiber’s leadership. This is a brilliant reading, full of sunlight and very strong rhythms, with quick tempos, no sentimentality, and a string section that slashes away maniacally during the Gypsy Song and third-act knife fight, but caresses Carmen’s Habanera and José’s Flower Song. The Quintet is taken so fast that you fear for the ensemble, but there’s no need: this show has been impeccably rehearsed and it’s as clean as possible. Kleiber even finds a lilting rhythm in the usually dull Smuggler’s chorus in Act 3, and the tension in the final scene is almost terrifying, with José’s desperation growing out of control. In short, you’ll hear much that seems new–or as if you’re hearing it anew–with Kleiber at the helm. The camera cuts to him often and it’s always a pleasure to watch his elegant dignity and control.

The singing is pretty razzle-dazzle too. Elena Obraztsova, even with her covered vowels and outrageously off-key singing in the Gypsy Song, is a splendid Carmen. She offers singing alternately sultry and sarcastic (“Bel officier”) and mostly alluring, until she turns gloomy and vicious in Act 3 and unleashes her chest voice. She’s never actually subtle, but she’s very convincing and always full of personaility. And it’s likely that Placido Domingo has never been better. He looks handsome, the voice is absolutely free and intensely expressive, and he gets a three-minute ovation after the Flower Song. He and Kleiber clearly inspire one-another. Yuri Mazurok is a weakish Escamillo, singing well but looking awkward and poorly wigged (or coiffed). Isobel Buchanan’s Micaela is just about perfect–innocent without being cloying–and her silvery tone is ravishing. The supporting cast is well-drilled, both musically and dramatically, with no rough edges or inept moments. Needless to say, the orchestra plays gorgeously.

The version of the opera used contains some spoken dialog, which the microphones sometimes miss, but otherwise the quarter-century LPCM Stereo sound is flawless, with fine orchestra/voices balance. There are subtitles in German, French, Italian, and English, which allow us to learn that Carmen’s first words in the Gypsy Song are “The rods of the sistrums jingled with a metallic ring”. There are 56 tracking points–very generous and great for pinpointing special moments. This is a remarkable release. I wonder what else is in “the vaults”. [2/10/2005]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: this one


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