Having recently reviewed the von Karajan film of Carmen, I was compelled to rewatch this production, which came out about the same time, in order to compare two very different versions of Bizet's masterwork, one of the greatest operas of all time. Having explored them both, it's hard for me to choose a favorite. This one has less of a "name" cast than the von Karajan, but that shouldn't be a deterrent, the cast here, though less well known, is scarcely less wonderful, and it features Placido Domingo, arguably the best Don Jose of modern times. Therefore, an educated decision is probably going to come down to a couple of factors. One, the von Karajan version is a film, this is a live performance of a Zefferelli production, so it depends on the viewer's preference. Two, the conductors have different styles: do you favor the languourous pace of von Karajan, or the speedy, headlong assault of Carlos Kleiber? Of course, if you are like me, you enjoy various approaches to the same work of art, and will want to buy them both!
The main but definitely not only selling point of this DVD is Domingo's Don Jose. We all know the tenor is a beautiful singer, even today, but when this was done in the late '70's he was in his prime, both physically and vocally. His Flower Aria is a literal showstopper. The audience must have been informed that the performance was being taped and instructed to save most of their applause for the curtain calls, because the crowd stays fairly sedate throughout most of the opera; Domingo's aria, however, inspires a nearly three minute ovation, and justifiably so,it is poignant, dramatic, heartbreaking, incomparable. I'm glad the editors didn't cut the applause, seeing it in its entirety adds to the live feel of this DVD. But that isn't Domingo's only moment in the sun, he excels at every level, deteriorating into obsession and madness; by the end of act three, he is positively frightening, telling Carmen that they are destined(some might say doomed) to meet again.
As Carmen, Elena Obraztsova is vocally superb, she has the sort of deep, throaty, occasionally masculine voice necessary to create a convincing gypsy seductress. Her acting is less consistent, she can't seem to decide whether to play Carmen as an insouciant flirt or a strong-willed woman of passion - she is far more effective as the latter. I'm not saying that the two qualities are mutually exclusive, but in her performance they seem to belong to two different characters. Not that her performance isn't highly watchable throughout - she has a nice laugh, even when she's trying to be cruel, and her large eyes are beautifully evocative, even haunting, in the manner of an old-time movie femme fatale(Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Crawford in Rain, Calamai in Ossessione). But when she is at her best, which means at her most passionate, she is truly unforgettable.
Isobel Buchanan is a perfect Micaela, young, lovely, ingenuous, full of pathos, with a sweetly moving voice capable of achieving great power during her big aria. Yuri Mazurok isn't the most strong-voiced Escamillo you will ever hear, his baritone sounds a little rough at times, but overall he has a good sound and is convincing as a cocky matador.
Kleiber's conducting is lightning quick, really the only time it takes a breather is during the prolonged audience ovation for Domingo's aria. This fast pace galvanizes the music while emphasizing that the primary motivation behind the story of Carmen is passion with a capital P. Zeffirelli's production has his usual panache, with great crowd scenes, colorful costumes, authentic-looking locales. My only complaint is with his TV direction, which too often bypasses wide shots in favor of medium shots and closeups - in my opinion, those wide shots, especially during crowd scenes, really give the viewer the feel of being there in the audience. Also, his choice of camera emphasis is occasionally ill-conceived, such as at the end of the Toreador Song, where Carmen sings "L'amour" to Escamillo and she isn't even in the frame. This is an important moment, and it has more of an impact if we actually see Carmen saying(singing) the words.
Two nearly perfect productions of Carmen on DVD. Bizet didn't live long enough to see or enjoy the success of his masterpiece, but the rest of us can bask in what the composer was unfortunately denied.