Four Fabulously Fiery Carmens

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - 12:00 AM

It's hard to imagine, but George Bizet's Carmen was a spectacular failure when it was first presented in 1875. The composer died never knowing that his opera became a huge hit. "If he had lived another year, he would have read all these wonderful critical notices," said F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News.

In this edition of Opera in Brief, Driscoll explains the dynamic that exists between the three main characters: the fiery gypsy Carmen, her handsome toreador Escamillo, and Don Jose, the soldier who is completely obsessed with her. And below he names four memorable interpreters of the title character.

Carmen is based on a short story by Prosper Mérimée about a woman who is “far from a conventional prima donna,” said Driscoll. She is completely illiterate with "eyes like a wolf watching a bird." She is ruthless and violent with "no recognizable code of ethics."

Knowing that 19th century Paris wasn’t ready for a full blown public presentation of such a contentious female character, Bizet and his librettists made the story more palatable by softening Carmen a bit and making her slightly more accessible. Some go so far as to play her as a beautifully seductive woman; for others, she’s scrappy and tough as nails.

But, no matter which tack a singer takes, Carmen still doesn’t last more than four acts. Her wily ways get the best of her and Don José kills her in a jealous rage before the final curtain comes down.

F. Paul Driscoll names four memorable interpreters of the fiery gypsy:

1. Conchita Supervia

This Catalan mezzo-soprano was strikingly beautiful to look at with a “vibrato like the rattle of dice in a cup.” She made her professional debut when she was just a teenager and sang with an impressive clarity of intention. She traveled with her own “Carmen wardrobe” that was Paris couture and was always dressed to the nines.

2. Solange Michel

This woman was the most important Carmen in France after World War II. She sang the role more than 600 times. Her voice leaned towards the contralto range but was never heavy. It was not an "overtly seductive or a particularly glamorous sound, but it was extremely womanly.”

3. Marilyn Horne

This mezzo soprano had the uncanny ability to sing anything she wanted to. Her Carmen was a very tough, independent woman and very much in touch with Carmen’s anger. She gave you the feeling that she could survive anything. When she made her entrance at the end of the opera in the Met’s 1972 production, she looked fabulous in her white lace dress and mantilla designed especially for her by David Walker.

4. Risë Stevens

With beauty to rival the movie stars of her day, this American mezzo soprano was one of the biggest stars at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1940s and 50s. Rudolf Bing hired Tyrone Guthrie to stage a new production for her at the Met. She had incredible talent and sex appeal. And, she was fiercely smart. Carmen was her favorite role, and she owned it!

Weigh in: Who is your favorite Carmen? Tell us about your choice below.


F. Paul Driscoll and Tristan Kraft

Produced by:

Margaret Kelley and Midge Woolsey


More in:

Comments [7]

Vegan Vicki from Sugar Hill, Harlem

No doubt, Shirley Verrett was the most exciting Carmen I ever saw. Without any male dancer's lift, she leapt to Lillas Pastia's table to do a throbbing flamenco while driving "Les tringles des sistres tintaient" to a frenetic climax to begin Act II. That role was her Met debut, 1968, and she became an instant fave. I don't believe I saw her debut, but I did catch her Carmen later that year.

Sep. 08 2012 10:04 AM
Carl Walker from Green River Utah

I had the privelege and honor at age 18 in 1950 to be on the stage with Rise Stevens. I was a super in Carmen at the old metropolitan opera house on 41st and Bway in NYC. We were paid a dollar per performance. Rise Stevens was a wonderful, friendly super star and a Great Carmen. What a wonderful memory! Carmen is still one of my favorite operas.
Carl Walker
Formerly of Northport, NY

Jul. 27 2012 05:22 PM
Thomas from NWNJ

Rise Stevens was my first operatic love and still remains my avorite Carmen. It was in fact her appearance in a Bing Crosby movie that brought her to my attention as a boy (Bing was my Moms' favorite). When she sang the Habanera I was hooked!

Jul. 26 2012 11:07 AM
Vickie from Coral Springs, FL from Coral Springs, FL

My grandmother Marcia Davenport, took me to see Ms. Stevens in Carmen at the Old Met some time around 1955. That was the day I fell in love with opera and I'll never forget it!

Jul. 26 2012 09:14 AM
Zvi Stone from Jerusalem, Israel

1)Rinat Shaham
2)Maria Ewing

Jul. 26 2012 08:37 AM
Frank Burke from Ottawa, ON

My favourite Carmen has to be Rise Stevens. As a 10 year old, I was taken to my first opera, CARMEN, when the Metropolitan Opera Tour came to Toronto. Oh yeah, Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill were in the cast as well.
Needless to say, it was the beginning of a life=long love affair with opera and music theatre.

Jul. 25 2012 04:21 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

My favorite Carmen is Gabriella Besanzoni, the La Scala and Teatro Colo'n star of the '20s and '30s. As a contralto, she has no difficulties with the low B Carmen sings after Don Jose' hears the retreat sounded, and likewise with the Middle C and C sharp in the death card aria. But she has evenness of tone in the upper register, as well. She recorded it in Italian with the La Scala forces conducted by Carlo Sabajno in 1931. In my opinion, a very, very close second is Rise" Stevens, who, though not a contralto, is equally even in tone throughout the range of the role. She has the advantage of always having sung it in the original French, as recorded for posterity with the RCA Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner.

Jul. 25 2012 09:54 AM

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