Choir and orchestra of the Bolshoi theatre of the USSR
Conductor - A. Melik-Pashaev; choir master - M. Cooper
Recorded in 1937
ďRecorded in 1937 in Russia, this recording of CARMEN is more obscure
than most of its Western predecessors (this was the operaís eighth
complete recording, as good a demonstration as any of its popularity
even then). Of the three acoustic recordings, collectors are mostly
familiar with, the first is a 1908 effort with Emmy Destinn. The first
electrical recording, made in 1928 with Raymonde Visconti in the title
role and Georges Thill as José, remains a classic example of the early
20th-century French performance style; it is available on a number of
labels. The first Italian-language recording was done in 1931 with
Gabriella Besanzoni as Carmen and forces from La Scala; a more
well-known Rome Opera recording followed in 1933. That one offered a
thrilling, over-the-top verismo style of performance with Aurora Buades
and Aureliano Pertile - by the final scene you could be forgiven for
believing that they were both ready to kill each other. Then in 1937
came this effort from the Bolshoi.
Clearly a CARMEN sung in Russian would not be anyoneís first choice.
The fact that in Russian, it is sufficient to make it of interest only
to specialist collectors others interested in the history of operatic
performance style. But for those people, this is an important addition
to a collection. Although short on French elegance, there is some
beautiful and vivid singing and exquisite conducting to be heard here.
Vera Davydova (1906-1993) was in her prime in 1937. She had a rich,
darkly colored mezzo-soprano and was a leading singer at the Bolshoi,
with a repertoire encompassing Amneris, Marfa in KHOVANSHCHINA, and
similar standard fare for the Bolshoi at that time. Her Carmen is not
exactly flirtations or coquettish, but it is convincingly feminine and
sensual. Moreover, the role is sung with a voice that is evenly
produced from top to bottom and that is comfortable at all dynamics.
There are certainly Carmens on disc with more imagination and a wider
range of vocal colors, but there are not many more richly vocalized, and
it is instructive to hear how the role was performed by a Soviet-era
singer. Today we are used to Russians singing in all the major
international houses, but in the 1930s they rarely traveled.
Nikandr Khanaev, a voice new to me, is a wonderful José. Born in 1890,
he was about a decade older than his more lyric Bolshoi competitors
Kozlovsky and Lemeshev, and he focused more on the heavier repertoire.
Otello, Sadko, and Ghermann (in Tchaikovskyís PIQUE DAME) were
specialties, along with Don José. The voice has plenty of heft and
weight, but Khanaev is also able to sing softly and with a lovely sense
of line. His José is a forceful personality, very powerful at the end
of the second act and convincingly unhinged in the dramatic final scene.
Natalia Shpiller sings a particularly beautiful Micaela, with a real
glow in the tone and a touching demeanor. She is delicate without being
simpering, a hard line to walk in this role. Vladimir Politkovskyís
Escamillo is also strongly sung, with the vocal resources to adequately
cover both ends of the roleís taxing range.
More than the individual performances, however, it is the overall sense
of ensemble and theatrical credibility here that rewards the listener
who can listen past the language barrier. Some of the credit for this
goes to very strong casting in all the smaller roles but even more to
the conducting of Alexander Melik-Pashaev. His work is well known to
collectors, and he delivers a performance well balanced between lyricism
and drama. The pacing is natural, and one feels that the entire cast
is interacting with one another rather than singing to the microphone.
This is particularly true in the second act exchanges between Don José
and Carmen, as well as in their intense final duet.
The recorded sound in the present transfer is surprisingly full, lacking
the harshness that we sometimes associate with Soviet-era recordings.
The accompanying booklet in Russian and English has a bit of history
about the recording and brief bios of each singer. Aquarius, which is
doing wonderful work with important Russian recordings, is available
through Norbeck, Peters & Ford.Ē