If Georges Bizet’s Carmen is not the most popular opera in the standard repertoire, it certainly is one of the top two or three in contention, and deservedly so. It features a tempestuous love story in an exotic setting, gorgeous melodies, and as magnificent a starring role as any diva-lover could hope for.
Although the composer’s last opera was something of a critical failure when it opened — he died a couple of months after its premiere — its popularity has only grown ever since. Today it is a staple in opera houses all over the world, and there are recordings aplenty available: no mezzosoprano worth her salt would give up a chance to sing the lead. From Maria Callas (who never performed the role on stage) and Leontyne Price in the ’60s to contemporaries like Angela Gheorghiu (whose voice some feel is wrong for the role), you’d think there’d be enough Carmens — great ones and some not so great — to fill any record collection.
You would be wrong. There is never too much of a good thing. Perhaps the mezzo best known for her Carmen back in the ’50s was Rise Stevens. She sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera 124 times and in 1952 appeared as Carmen on one of the first of the televised Met productions. There is a 1951 recording of one of her performances, but while she was praised for her performance, the sound leaves a little to be desired and there are some complaints about tenor Jan Peerce.
The new release of a remastered February 16, 1952 Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast under the direction of Fritz Reiner comes then as a welcome addition to the opera’s discography; although there does seem to be an earlier version of this broadcast on Walhall Eternity Series.
Joining Stevens is a stellar cast directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Richard Tucker is the spurned lover, Don Jose. Micaela, the sweet peasant yang to Carmen’s yin, is sung by Nadine Conner. Carmen’s friends at the factory, Frasquita and Mercedes, are played by Lucine Amara and Margaret Roggero. Zuniga, the head of the guards, is Osie Hawkins. Paolo Silveri is the toreador, Escamillo.
Conventional wisdom has it that Stevens indeed made the role her own both with her voice and with her acting. Her Carmen is both sexy and cruel, and she carries it off with consummate skill. Whether in her entrance with the famed “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” or her seduction of Don Jose in Act I’s glorious “Près des remparts de Séville,” she justifies everything that has been said about her. It is a compelling performance.
Richard Tucker, a tenor with a rich and vibrant voice, makes Stevens a wonderful partner. His “Flower Song” at the end of Act II is one of the highlights of the opera and his Act I duet with Amara is a thing of beauty. Paolo Silveri, of course, rouses the crowd with “Toréador, en garde!” and he is spot on. The stirring chorus just before the end of the last act is another high point. There may well better recordings of Carmen, but this is a truly excellent performance that stands up well even after all these years.