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Callas’ Carmen as seductive as Circe – “Carmen” – EMI 1964

by Luca

There are so many Carmen-recordings, every mezzo, contralto and even sopranos attempted it, even coloratura-sopranos like Patti (The only flop in her illustrious career) and Sills (Sadly miscast, she was better in Massenet) tackled the role. Yet the truly great Carmens can be counted on one, well, maybe two hands. The earliest recording, featuring dramatic soprano Emmy Destinn is amazing but not in great sound (Obviously). The next great Carmen would be Rise Stevens, in a rather unknown studio-recording. I prefer her live-recording by a long shot. A seductive, dark mezzo of rarely matched beauty. After this Victoria de los Angeles takes the crown. The Spanish Falcon-soprano, who was also a sublime Charlotte (Only Vallin was even greater) was an elegant, velvet-like, seductive gypsy with cold elegance. A very refined portrait of a character that has been portrayed as a slut way too often. The most fabulous Italian Carmen is without a doubt Giulietta Simionato whose live-recordings with di Stefano and Corelli thrill, excite and seduce with their fire, lust and passion. And then came Maria Callas, a Greek soprano whose repertoire was that of a true soprano sfogato, anything from belcanto to Wagner’s Isolde and Brünnhilde could be found there. She had been approached to do Eboli, Carmen, Dalilah, Marie (!) and other roles she sadly never sang on stage. Callas describes Bizet’s Carmen vs. the original Carmen as described in Prosper Merimee’s novel. Her Carmen has elements of both. The independent lust for freedom, the way she drives men to insanity cruelly, how she uses and manipulates them with her charms only to abandon them after a short time. Escamillo, her last lover clearly states that Carmen’s “love” is short-lived. And that is what we hear in Callas’ portrayal. When obeyed she oozes charm and sexual energy, when opposed or held she breathes fire. Her Carmen finds her man’s weakness and thrusts her vocal dagger into it without mercy and when she has won him over at last she purrs like a kitten. Her habanera is not a song for men, it is the philosophy of her life without a care in the world. She defies life and death and Callas, who sounded so light and tender as Amina sounds dark, luscious and haunting here. Her seguedilla has the nature of the heartless seductress. For her freedom she is willing to do anything. As she says later when someone askes her why she’s in love with him: “He’s a pretty boy and he pleases me!”. In the gypsy song we hear one of the hottest scene ever recorded in the studio. Callas’ fierce “Tralala!” is almost orgasmic. Imagine her, the dark beauty that she was, dancing this scene! In the love-scene she first toys with him, when he has to obey the bugle-call she mocks him, tortures him. This is responded to with Don José’s flower-song, one of the sweetest arias imaginable. But Carmen is not satisfied. He must come with her! Notice how Callas’ sounds dangerously fierce, yet warm and smooth on “La libérté!”. As we hear the third act only a shadow of her desire remains. She sounds positively annoyed with him and when Escamillo comes her voice blooms to new beautiful heights despite the forlorn, even sad tone of the card-aria before where Carmen sees her own death in the cards. Act four contains some of the most glorious singing Callas ever recorded. Observing the tenderness in the short love-duet with Escamillo I assume that Carmen is truly in love for the first time. There is no danger in her voice, just love. But the confrontation with Don José who went with his former friend and fiance to console his dying mother had to come. In this duet we hear Callas at her wildest, proudest and most defying. She treats him coldly, the only time we hear a glint of feeling is in her confession of loving Escamillo. The more Don José begs, threatens or cries, the colder and distant Callas’ Carmen becomes. When he kills her after Carmen throwing the ring into his face there is a void, everything sounds so forlorn and tragic with Carmen gone forever. Callas may not be a natural mezzo like Stignani, Cossotto or Baltsa but she, like Price after her and Ponselle before her brought a unique, fatally charming character to life. Being surrounded not only by the best Don José on records, Nicolai Gedda, but also by the shamefully underrated Giuot as Michaela whose warm, sweet and innocent soprano is made for Michaela and the brilliant Massard, the fabulous Rigoletto and Athanael from the Rigoletto and Thais recordings with the divine Renee Doria nothing can go wrong. Pretre conducts with verve and elegance, the sound is absolutely glorious. Do not miss this Carmen, it’s an amazing experience!

(by Romina –