Listeners will enjoy David Timson's animated performance as he narrates Thomson Smillie's analysis of why Carmen is among the most popular operas in history. Smillie has the scholarly earnestness of a music lover who simply wishes to share his delight with others, and Timson's wry and elegant voice is a perfect complement. Using musical extracts from Carmen, Smillie sets out to show how a combination of atmosphere, melodic ingenuity, and a seductive heroine produced an opera that continues to be a staple production despite its ignominious start. Listeners will find their own passion for opera ignited by this recording.
Carmen is among the most popular operas for all the obvious reasons: great characters, a gripping story, and fabulous music. But what sets it on a pinnacle is an amazing combination of three factors: a sizzling Gipsy heroine (one of the most psychologically complex and compelling characters in all theatre), great atmosphere (Spain, hot sun, the bull-ring), and the prodigality of melodic invention - one great tune after another, at least a dozen of which are the staples of Madison Avenue and the animated cartoon.
Like a surprising number of opera-house staples, Carmen was not a success at its first performance. In fact, it is likely that its failure contributed to the early death of the composer. But as Thomson Smillie shows in his accessible introduction, the emotionally driven nature of its heroine and her admirers, Don José and Escamillo, makes Carmen unforgettable. As always in the Opera Explained series, the music itself plays an integral role.
©2002 Naxos AudioBooks (P)2002 Naxos AudioBooks
Painter, musician, bibliophile...
If you had crossed Bizet's path in 1875, the year "Carmen" was first staged, you would have met with a plump, bespectacled Frenchman who was forever nibbling sweet delicacies. But while you might overlook this unassuming person, you could not have ignored his music.
From early childhood, Bizet possessed prodigious talent. In the Conservatoire at nine, and winning every prize going, he worked his magic on a variety of instruments. At the age of 19, he won the Prix de Rome. With innate musical taste, judgment, and imagination, he stands above his contemporaries.
As this program points out, Bizet was no "one trick pony." He'd written most of his work before anyone had heard of "Carmen," and some of this sadly neglected work deserves rediscovery and appreciation, such as his opera "The Pearl Fishers."
Harold Schonberg wrote, "Carmen is an opera of passion, power, and truth, infinitely superior to the carefully arranged, prettily served canapés of Gounod and Massenet. They were skilled professionals. Bizet was a genius."
Tchaikovsky and Brahms were fans of "Carmen," too. Wagner, having heard it, said of Bizet, "At last, for a change, someone with ideas in his head!"
All this makes it the more stunning that this perennial favorite did not meet with immediate success. "Carmen" was called "immoral," and accused of being (even worse) "Wagnerian."
In this excellent program, David Timson brings the spectacle of "Carmen" vividly to life, with reference to many important excerpts, the fast and furious scene changes demanded by the complex action, and so much more.
If you're fortunate enough to be going to see the opera or just want to understand it better while you listen at home, you can't go wrong with this exploration of "Carmen essentials."
This was the first opera I heard (at the age of nine) and it left me forever in love with opera itself. My French wasn't under firm control, and I couldn't really understand everything that was happening, but that music! I have never forgotten it. Such is the power of Bizet.
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