Thursday, 26 December 2013

Opera ABC: Bizet Carmen

The opera, Carmen composed by Bizet is one of the staples of the operatic repertoire. It contains some of the most memorable melodies ever written. If there is only one opera that you will ever know, then this should be it. This post features one of the best versions of Carmen with one of the greatest opera performers ever, Maria Callas (Did you catch the Maria Callas Google Doodle?). Also featured in this post are a number of the other works composed using themes from Carmen.

Georges Bizet

Carmen, was the last and greatest work of French composer, Georges Bizet (1838-1875). The premier took place three months before Bizet's untimely death, from a heart attack. At the time of his death, Bizet was unaware that Carmen would prove a spectacular and enduring success. As is usually the case in opera, Carmen is a love story....a bit of a three way actually (seedy stuff, I know) between Carmen and her two admirers, soldier Jose and toreador Escamillo. For a concise and entertaining comic strip overview of the plot head over to

Bizet Carmen Maria Callas

One of the best recordings of Carmen and one of my favourites, features Maria Callas, Nicolai Gedda, Orchestre de Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris, conducted by Georges Prêtre. While I hear and read a lot of criticism about Maria Callas, I absolutely love her. With Callas, things are not always pretty, but they are always filled with passion and fire, qualities which are perfect for the role of Carmen.

The themes from Carmen are so popular, that many have been utilised in a number of other works, which I have included in the following Spotify playlist:

This is a wonderful version for violin and orchestra utilising popular themes from the opera. Ironically this is also one of Sarasate's most popular works. This version is played by Itzhak Perlman in his prime, showing off his sparkling virtuosity.   

Less popular than Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy, but utilising many of the same themes, the Waxman Carmen Fantasie has been gaining popularity over the past few years. It was written as part of the score for the movie Humoresque. This version is played by relative unknown violinist, Alexander Gilman and the Cape Town Philharmonic, in a surprising CD which features a compelling interpretation of the Barber violin concerto (one of my favourite violin concertos). 

This one is a little more obscure, but immediately likeable due to the inventive use of familiar themes from Carmen into this one-act ballet (13 movements). It is interesting to note that both Shostakovich and Khachaturian refused the request to write the work. Shostakovich apparently saying, "Everyone is so used to the opera that whatever you write, you'll disappoint them." Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin finally composed a modern take on Carmen, scored for percussion and strings. The work was banned by the Soviet Minister of Culture immediately following its premiere. Apparently it was perceived as "insulting to Bizet's masterpiece". The Soviet Minister of Culture had the following to say, "We cannot allow them to make a whore out of Carmen, the heroine of the Spanish people." This is a clever piece which deserves to be better known. I hope that I am able to introduce it to a new audience.

DVD available from (click on DVD cover below):

An award winning South African adaptation (sung in African language, Xhosa) called U-Carmen eKhayelitsha. The film won critical acclaim when it received the Golden Bear at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival. Below is a youTube video of the trailer:

Some of the highlights from the Maria Callas version of the opera include:
Track 1: Overture
Track 6: L'amour est un oiseau rebelle 
Track 9: Parle-moi de ma mère! 
Track 13: Seguidille. Près des remparts de Séville
Track 16: Chanson Boheme. Les tringles des sistres tintaient
Track 18: Vivat! Vivat le torero!..Toreador Song: Votre toast
Track 21: Eh bien!
Track 25: Air de la fleur
Track 30: Trio des Cartes
Track 33: C'est des contrebandiers
Track 38: Les voici, les voici (Toreador Chorus)
Track 39: C'est toi!...Viva!

Links to the recording:


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