Bizet: Carmen
Maria Callas, Georges Prêtre
Vinyl Physical Release: May 12, 2023
Towards the end of Callas’s career, there were many rumours that she was planning to perform Carmen on stage. This was never to be, but Carmen became her penultimate complete recording of an opera – and her only complete recording of a French opera. With Georges Prêtre, one of her favored conductors, and the ever-stylish Nicolai Gedda as her Don José, she captured every facet of the role. As Gramophone said when the set was first released: ‘Hers is a Carmen to haunt you.’

‘Callas is Carmen’ proclaimed the publicity when this recording first appeared on LP in elaborate red and gold faux-leather luxury packaging with three separate booklets. It was a major coup for the record company to get Callas to record this most intriguing of all operatic roles, and its release was eagerly awaited. Opera houses around the world had been trying for years to persuade Callas to play Carmen, but the closest this ever came was when she sang the two first-act arias in a Golden Hour TV concert from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1962.

Callas had thought long and hard as to how she might portray the fiery gypsy on stage, but in a filmed interview with Lord Harewood she said that Carmen behaved like a man in that she took her lovers as it pleased her, whereas she (Callas) was a more romantic, feminine person who would not behave in this aggressive way in affairs of the heart.

At the beginning of 1964, after a gap of several years, Callas had returned triumphantly to the operatic stage in the acclaimed Zeffirelli production of Tosca at Covent Garden and then appeared in a sumptuous new staging of Norma at the Paris Opéra. The Carmen sessions began two weeks after the final Norma and found Callas in a magnificent voice. Despite certain expectations that Callas’s Carmen would somehow be the most violent, most extreme interpretation of the part, the actual result is a superb performance of infinite subtlety and detail that brings the character vividly to life. All the requisite elements of seductiveness, charm and defiance are there. It is a performance full of inner fire, but everything is kept totally under control until the final blazing outburst at the end. Was Callas Carmen? We will never know how she would have interpreted the role on stage, but as far as singing is concerned the answer is: ‘Yes’, and this recording is the proof.