65 of 66 people found the following review helpful
J Scott Morrison
- Published on Amazon.com
When this production of 'Carmen' was mounted at the Vienna State Opera in 1978 it caused quite a stir. Mostly that was because Carlos Kleiber rarely conducted opera and when he did it was always an occasion. And Zeffirelli, controversial but brilliant as an opera conductor, always created a stir with any new production of his. This film was also directed by Zeffirelli for Austrian television and as far as I know it has not been available in general circulation since its initial airing. It is a fitting tribute to Kleiber whose death this last summer was a blow for the classical music world. He was surely one of the great conductors of recent times.
Plácido Domingo is in his prime here as Don José. In Act II 'La fleur que tu m'avais jetée' ('The Flower Song') is thrilling, even though he doesn't quite manage the pianissimo ending Bizet intended. There is a five-minute-plus ovation at its finish, and it is well-deserved. It is interesting that Zeffirelli left the entire ovation in his edited film because there are many other places in the performance where the applause has been edited out. One wonders if he wasn't playing favorites with his cast. Elena Obraztsova gets silence after several of her arias, but Isobel Buchanan gets a huge ovation after her Act III 'Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante,' again deservedly so. It is true that Obraztsova is not an ideal Carmen, at least in the early going when she is supposed to be the alluring, devil-may-care gypsy woman. Later, though, in the Card Scene where she repeatedly turns up cards that predict 'La mort!' ('Death!) she is riveting. Our Escamillo is, to my mind, rather a cipher. Yuri Mazurok has a solid baritone, but his torero does not have the necessary vocal or physical swagger, and his French is almost unintelligible. The minor characters are well-taken. I was particularly impressed both vocally and histrionically with the Frasquita (Cheryl Kanfoush) and Mercédès (Axelle Gall), singers not previously known to me.
The undoubted star of this production is Carlos Kleiber. From the downbeat of the Prélude to the very end of the opera, his musical direction is as exciting as any I've ever heard in this thrice-familiar opera. Zeffirelli knew this, too. His camera focuses on Kleiber repeatedly throughout the production, sometimes even interrupting action onstage, but generally only when the orchestra is playing alone. I had never seen Kleiber conduct, so I was very pleased to be able to see this. (I was amused to see him give the opening tempo of those fast sixteenths at the beginning of the fourth act by mouthing to orchestra and chorus 'Puh puh Puh puh Puh puh' before giving the downbeat.) I can imagine others, less interested in the conductor, might feel that Zeffirelli's cutting away to show Kleiber is a distraction. The members of the Vienna Philharmonic play like gods. Their rhythmic precision is jaw-droppingly good. I'd particularly single out the concertmaster and the principal flute for praise.
This is one of those over-the-top Zeffirelli productions. There are huge numbers of people onstage much of the time and Zeffirelli's vaunted ability to direct crowds, giving each member some individual bits to perform, is on show here. The camerawork is such that at times one almost believes one is watching an opened-out movie of an opera, not one confined to a stage. I did think all the donkeys and horses in Act III were a bit much, but the crowd outside the bullring arena in Act IV (and featuring exciting flamenco dancers) was a great pleasure to watch.
The edition used here appears to be the one by Fritz Oeser, with spoken dialog and sans the Guiraud recitatives. That was something new in the 1970s and must have been interesting for seasoned operaphiles. I well remember a 1973 production at the Met conducted by Bernstein and starring Marilyn Horne that broke with precedent by using this new edition. I don't know if that one has made it to video.
Is this the definitive 'Carmen.' Well, first of course one would have to ask if there could ever be such a thing. Is it a good 'Carmen'? You bet it is! I do wish the Carmen had perhaps been a bit more alluring, but one cannot argue with that huge organ-toned mezzo of Obraztsova. And it's hard to imagine a better Don José. Isobel Buchanan's Micaëla is a tiny bit generic (as perhaps the part itself is), but lovely and appealing. Mazurok has his admirers, but I'm not particularly one of them. Still, this DVD rates five stars; it definitely is an occasion and an exciting one. Interestingly there is another Zeffirelli production from Verona on DVD that I like almost as much as this one, even though the cast is a whole lot less famous, but its orchestra is nowhere near as good.
Visually this is stunning and in crisp videography. Sound is clear and in plain vanilla stereo, no options. Subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish.
Recommended with minor reservations.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.