• Carmen: The Characters and Their Voices

    We start again another of our in-Depth series, with one of the most popular operas ever: Carmen, by Georges Bizet.




    The first Carmen was the French mezzo Célestine Galli-Marié. A real character, she was every bit as impetuous and determined woman as the Gypsy herself. She was 34 years old at the time of the premiere, and was a very good match for Carmen both singing and acting, with her voice that was described as that of a high mezzo.



    Paul Lhérie was Don José. Though he started his career as a tenor, he later changed his fach to baritone, and was a recognised Rigoletto or Posa. Of course, that means his voice was from the beginning rather dark, dramatic and not so well gifted in the top notes... but this kind of voice can be a good Don José, for sure.




    Jacques Bouhy, a Belgian baritone, was Escamillo. A well regarded singer, he was succesful for many years in Europe and America.



    Marguerite Chapuy was a young soprano of 24 years of age when she was selected to sing Micaëla. Judging from other roles she sang, her voice was that of a light-lyrical soprano. However, she married a general of the French Army and retired from the stage just one year after the premiere of Carmen.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Carmen: The Characters and their voices started by Schigolch View original post
    Comments 6 Comments
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Escamillo is not a complex role, either dramatically or musically. It just needs a competent baritone, that can sound properly arrogant in his Toreador number, and can stand up to Don José in the duet. Little more.

      His only real occasion to shine is singing the couplets of the toreador. Curiously, this number was not originally in Bizet's mind, but was forced on him by the librettists, that were missing an "air de bravoure" on the opera. The major problem for the singer, is the low B-flat in 'car avec les soldats', fighting with a rather dense orchestral texture.

      Ernest Blanc was a refined Escamillo, as far as one can be refined singing Escamillo. Of course, his French diction helped, but also he was a convincing bullfighter, although of the "Joselito"'s school, rather than the "Belmonte"'s:

      Ernest Blanc - Air du Toreador

      Ernest Blanc - duet with Don José (with Jon Vickers)



      Robert Merrill sang Escamillo often. And he got proficient on it. With time.

      Robert Merrill - Air du Toreador


      To José Van Dam, Escamillo was the role that opened the doors of the great Opera houses: Covent, Scala, MET,... he is a light Escamillo, with an spotless diction and great phrasing, wonderful top notes. Not one for stentorian bravado, though.

      José Van Dam - Votre Toast

      osé Van Dam - duet with Don José (with Josep Carreras)


      Ruggero Raimondi was a compromise between the 'macho' Escamillo, and the somewhat more refined bullfighter. An actor-singer, perhaps a little bit too much the actor, and too little the singer.

      Ruggero Raimondi - Votre Toast



      Samuel Ramey was at the same time the 'macho' and the refined bullfighter:

      Samuel Ramey - duet with Don José (with Josep Carreras)



      An Escamillo of the 21st century: Ludovic Tézier.

      Tézier - Air du Toreador

      Tézier - duet with Don José (with Roberto Alagna)
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Micaela is a character invented by Bizet and his librettists, it was not present in Mérimée's novel. But it was a happy invention, as she provides some welcome contrasts to the opera, both musically and dramatically.

      This is a role to be sung by a lyric soprano. Sometimes, light sopranos also sing the role, but they are not able to produce the same impact as a fully lyrical (or at least, light-lyrical) soprano. There are some high notes that need to be solved, and also some subtle dynamics, but overall is not a really difficult role for a good singer of the right fach.

      Her two great moments are the very beautiful and lyrical duet with Don José in the First Act, and her solo aria "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante".

      Of the many singers that had sung Micaela, we will highlight just a few.

      First, three French sopranos that were perhaps among the greatest Micaelas of all time:

      Martha Angelici, arguably the best Micaela on record.

      Angelici - Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante

      Janine Micheau was a full lyrical voice, that was able to sing a rather more mature and forthcoming Micaela than the usual sort. One almost believe her when singing her fearless approach to the smuggler's den.

      Janine Micheau - Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante

      Andréa Guiot that was the Micaela of choice at the Paris Opéra from 1959 to 1973, and a pleasant, almost bucolic young girl from Navarra:

      Andréa Guiot - Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante


      There are several sopranos that have sung both Micaela, and Carmen, but none so proficiently as Victoria de los Angeles. A refined, really French Carmen (in spite of being Spanish herself), but also a dignified, resolute and classy Micaela:

      De los Angeles - Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante


      Mirella Freni was simply a perfect fit for Micaela. The right voice, the right performer, the right everything:

      Freni - Parle-moi de ma mère! (with Franco Corelli)

      Freni - Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante

      Angela Gheorghiu was a delightful Micaela. She was not a girl from Navarra, and not even a French soprano trying to sing a girl from Navarra, but she was charming nonetheless:

      Gheorghiu - Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante


      A Micaela of the 21st century, Anne-Catherine Gillet:

      Anne-Catherine Gillet - Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      There are two approaches to the role of Don José, that are there from the premiere, back in 1875.

      Let's call them the 'lover' approach, and the 'macho' approach.

      The first one, of course, privileges the lyricism present on the role, will sing "Parle-moi de ma mère!" racked with emotion, "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" is a desperate plea of love, while the more dramatic passages and the killing of Carmen will be the regrettable actions of a gentleman pushed beyond any reasonable limit by the wanton conduct of her lover.

      The 'macho' approach, however, will sing "Parle-moi de ma mère!" at the manner of a virile young man that just loves her 'mamma', "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" is a manly declaration of affection while the more dramatic passages and the killing of Carmen the actions of a dangerous man, the you-can't-play-with-me kind.

      In what promises to be a rather long account of some of the more distinguished tenors singing Don José during the last century or so, let's find the traces of the first approach in France, at the Opéra Comique, where singers like David Devriès or Edmond Clément were performing the role.

      Charles Friant - Air de la Fleur

      Charles Friant - Final Duet (with Ninon Vallin)

      Lucien Muratore - Air de la Fleur

      Georges Thill - Air de la Fleur

      But we can find also a more dramatic approach in France:

      José Luccioni - Parle-moi de ma mère! (with Lucienne Jourfier)

      José Luccioni - Air de la Fleur

      José Luccioni - Final scene (with Suzanne Juyol)
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Of course, there were many non-French Don José during the first decades of the 20th century. Let's select some of the more famous:

      Arguably the most famous of them all was no other than Enrico Caruso. He was a regular of the role, and his voice and performing convictions were more than adequate for the "macho" side. Incidentally, Caruso was singing Don José at the San Francisco Opera in 1906, where the earthquake stroke the city, and he published his account of the experience:

      Enrico Caruso - Parle-moi de ma mère (with Frances Alda)

      Enrico Caruso - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée


      Giovanni Martinelli, a great tenor but also considered a poor man's Caruso all his life, was a good Don José, that could convincingly sing a man in love, and a desperate man:

      Giovanni Martinelli - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée

      Giovannni Martinelli - Final scene (with Geraldine Farrar)


      The intensity and the vocal ability to portrait Don José of Aureliano Pertile, need to be mentioned here, though we will hear the role sung in Italian:


      Aureliano Pertile - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée

      Aureliano Pertile - Final scene (with Aurora Buades)


      This delicate, but manly Don José sung by Giacomo Lauri-Volpi was also a reference for many years, both in Europe and America:


      Giacomo Lauri-Volpi - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée


      The Spanish singer Miguel Fleta was a splendid Don José, and arguably the best fit for the role, in purely vocal terms (the Flower aria is sung in Italian):


      Miguel Fleta - Parle-moi de ma mère (with Lucrezia Bori)

      Miguel Fleta - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Which are the singers many fans would have in mind when they think about Don José?


      Nicolai Gedda, a worthy successor of the refined French Don José's school, in spite of being Swedish:

      Nicolai Gedda - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée

      Nicolai Gedda - Final Scene (with Victoria de los Angeles)


      Franco Corelli, a more than worthy successor of the "macho" Don José's school, in spite of not singing really in French:

      Franco Corelli - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée

      Franco Corelli - Final Scene (with Belen Amparan)


      Jon Vickers, with his less-than-beautiful voice, but also his ability to phrase, to move from the lover to the killer, from sweetness to desperation:


      Jon Vickers - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée

      Jon Vickers - Final Scene (with Grace Bumbry)


      Plácido Domingo, arguably the best compromise for the role.


      Plácido Domingo - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée

      Plácido Domingo - Final Scene (with Teresa Berganza)


      For the role today, the best performer is perhaps Jonas Kaufmann:


      Jonas Kaufmann - La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée

      Jonas Kaufmann - Final Scene (with Anna Caterina Antonacci)
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Anna Caterina Antonacci is an extraordinary artist. Her Carmen is breathtaking:



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