Carmen (1978)

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Domingo, Obraztsova, Mazurok, Buchanan, Kanfoush, Rydl, Zednik; C. Kleiber; Zeffirelli, dir. and designer. Opéra Comique version, with spoken dialog. 153m. Color. PAL VHS ONLY

The audience screams for Kleiber even more than for the singers. With his conducting each sound has a place in a structure. Notes build to phrase climaxes, phrases build into movements. The performance has a wide dynamic range so that climaxes have that much more impact. I’ve never seen a Carmen with so much spirit and precision. Kleiber is on camera during instrumental passages. His arms and body lead the music toward a series of goals and make you feel what he wants the performers to do.

Domingo’s voice flows without constriction–it has spin. His top is ringing and free with none of the hoarseness that sometimes plagues it. His voice is silvery in the duet with Micaëla. In some performances he doesn’t sing below mezzo-forte, but here he has whisper-quiet pianissimos. His saliva flows freely–spittle drips from his mouth and gets in his beard. (Nineteenth-century voice teachers deemed a wet mouth vocally healthy.) The Domingo-Kleiber partnership imbues the “Flower Song” with a great deal of rubato, making it more lyrical and tender.

Saliva isn’t the only thing oozing. Domingo’s Josë is lubricated by sexual obsession. It’s in his face and in his eyes. His acting is full of detail and feeling. He hurls himself into the fight with Escamillo while maintaining emotional focus. At the close of Act III the voice could use more wallop, the singer more temperament. He communicates desperation more effectively than rage. He’s deeply touching in the opera’s last phrase.

Obraztsova’s Carmen is sexual but not vulgar, warm and appealing if not magical. Her “Seguidilla” is languid. By utilizing yodel effects she exploits register changes to sensual effect. Her slightly understated interpretation grows on you. She unleashes vocal power in Act II, singing with abandon. She is at her most compelling expressing the dark sides of the role, as in the card scene.

Buchanan’s Micaëla is bright-voiced, wide-eyed, sweet, girlish. She gives a spinal chill in her plea to Josë to return home. Mazurok’s Escamillo doesn’t posture but has real pizzazz, maintaining his savoir-faire even in the fight with Josë. The voice rings.

Zeffirelli offers not only brilliant pageantry in Act IV but a richly detailed “You Are There” realism that never distracts. The Spanish dancer-choreographer Rafael de Cordova looks sexually ravenous.

This is one of the great performances of our time.

Although 1978 is early for a live-performance video of a complete opera, this tape is in excellent quality.–Stefan Zucker