EMI has released many operatic recordings in its series "Great Recordings of the Century." This rendition of Georges Bizet's Carmen may actually live up to that lofty title.
Soprano Victoria de los Angeles is a Carmen of extraordinary depth and poise, giving a performance almost unmatched by current standards. What sets her interpretation apart from others is the same that blesses her rendition of Mimi in La bohème the ability to use her vocal timbre to emphasize the drama inherent in the role. The transformation from the witty character of the first act habanera (RealAudio excerpt) to the defiant lover of the final scene is profound.
De los Angeles is supported by tenor Nicolai Gedda (who plays the soldier Don Josè), Janine Micheau (as the innocent Michaëla) and Ernest Blanc as toreador Escamillo.
The only Carmen that comes close to de los Angeles in the canon is the ever-sultry Leontyne Price (von Karajan, RCA), whose recording has become the standard in many collections. This EMI version presents a more balanced ensemble, especially with the addition of Micheau. Von Karajan's edition (featuring Mirarella Freni in the role of Carmen) can be problematic at times. However, Micheau excels in a breathtaking first act duet (RealAudio excerpt) with Gedda, and Blanc shows all the aplomb of the vainglorious toreador in his third-act aria (RealAudio excerpt).
Sir Thomas Beecham molds the French National Radio Orchestra into a wonderfully fluid and vibrant ensemble. The entr'actes (RealAudio excerpt highlight Beecham's control of the orchestra, despite intonation mistakes within the woodwinds.
In addition, Beecham chooses to use the recitatives of Bizet's pupil, Ernest Guiraud, instead of using the authentic French dialogue. Ultimately, the original dialogues of Bizet add more to the characters.