Saturday 24 November 2012

Well meaning confusion - why Carmen sounds like it does

as Carmen
When the Peter Moores Foundation sponsored recording of Bizet's Carmen in English was recorded for Chandos, one of the first jobs was to prepare an edition of the opera for the performers to use. Richard Langham Smith's new edition is published by Peters and forms a new Urtext edition. The strange thing is not that it should need doing, after all most 19th century operas are getting new Urtext editions to help remove the inaccuracies that have crept in. But the oddity about Bizet's Carmen is that there has never been a coherent edition which reflects what was first performed and that for much of Carmen's popularity, the edition used bore striking differences from what was first performed. So what was the problem?

After all, though Bizet died young he did live to both supervise the first performances of Carmen and to issue a vocal score. But he died shortly afterwards and it was left to his friend Guiraud to create the version of Carmen with recitative. Now, there is nothing wrong with this, Bizet would have done the same job as the recitatives were needed for performance by foreign opera companies; it was for the performances in Vienna that Guiraud did his work. But what we have no way of knowing is which version Bizet would have regarded as the prime version. It is only in the last 50 years, that operas are recovering their spoken dialogue. Ambroise Thomas's Mignon and Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman have had the virtues of the dialogue versions rediscovered. Up until the 1950's, virtually the only place where you could hear Carmen with spoken dialogue was the Opera Comique and this is wonderfully preserved on disc (You can here it on Youtube).

A full score of the opera comique version was never issued, the standard Choudens edition was based on Guiraud's revisions to Bizet's manuscript. And Bizet's own vocal score was all but forgotten. In fact, the rather turbulent nature of the early rehearsals for the premiere of the opera gave rise to the legend that the composer was steamrollered into some of the changes. The problems arise partly because, during the rehearsal period Bizet's changes were put into the conducting score and parts but not back into the autograph. And the fact that his changes generally involved pruning, cutting and tightening was of course only grist to the mill. The image of the poor composer forced to cut his music.

In fact, Bizet was no push-over and where essentials were concerned, was quite determined. There are indications that it was Bizet who insisted that the librettists stay close to Merimee and not water down the plot too much. Various sections of the score (such as the Habanera) underwent numerous revisions until they satisfied Bizet.

As originally written in the autograph, Carmen was a very long score and it was inevitable that cuts would be necessary. But clearly Bizet was also concerned about the way the drama functioned on stage. After all, his previous operas had all be rather different, more conventional beasts. So Bizet's changes improved the dramatic flow. In a couple of cases we do lose interesting music and there is a good case for restoring them once in while.

But, starting in the 50's and 60's people went much further, not only restoring the spoken dialogue but opening up chunks of the work which Bizet had rejected. The idea was lost that Bizet's vocal score could be paramount. And, it needs to be emphasised, the vocal score was published as a result of contract between Bizet and Choudens, he corrected the proofs; what was published was what he wanted.

What was needed was a new, critical edition.

What we got, in 1964, was the version by Fritz Oeser which, by being reliant on the conducting score, down grading the significance of Bizet's vocal score and being quite confident that Oeser 'knew' what Bizet intend, has produced a bloated farrago. Winton Dean in his Master Musicians book on Bizet says the Oeser edition is 'perhaps the most corrupt score of any major masterpiece published in modern times, is an arbitrary selection from almost every stage of Bizet's work; the editor adopt readings scrapped before the score was copied, others rejected later, and some that were never admitted at all, while frequently dismissing the definitive text with words of contempt and sometimes not even citing it. The third and fourth finales in particular reflect none of Bizet's version and are full of extraneous stage directions that contradict both the libretto and the music'.

For anyone interested in pursuing this matter further, I can heartily recommend Winton Dean's book on Bizet in the Master Musicians series, which talks lucidly about Bizet the man and his music and the vicissitudes of Carmen. Dean's essay The True Carmen? which brilliantly demolishes, in careful detail, the substance of Fritz Oeser's edition of Carmen, was reprinted in Dean's book Essays in Opera. The essay is also illuminating in the way Dean demonstrates, in the cast of the Act 4 finale, quite how fine Bizet's dramatic instincts were when he re-shaped and cut during rehearsals.

Since its publication, the Oeser edition has caused many a production of Carmen to falter when it came to being true to the composer's wishes. And whilst Oeser's popularity has thankfully waned, we haven't been exactly spotless more recently particularly when it comes to the dialogue. The new production at the Opera Comique, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and directed by Adrian Noble used spoken dialogue but cut it to the bone. ENO previous production used no dialogue at all, which left Bizet's music very oddly situated in places. I have no idea what edition ENO are using for their new production which has just debuted (none of the reviews has so far made it clear), but the dialogue has again been cut to the bone.

Richard Langham Smith's new edition is available from Peters and this was used as the basis for the recording on Chandos. There is also an edition by Robert Didon available from Schott. Do we need two? Well, each editor has placed a different reliance on the sources. According to Mary Dibbern in Carmen: A Performance Guide Didon places the 1875 vocal score first, then uses the autograph and conductors score to fill in the missing dynamic markings and performance indications, with the dialogue taken from the first libretto. Included as options are five passages cut by Bizet which have become popular since the publication of the Oeser edition. Richard Langham Smith has used the orchestral score at the Opera Comique as his primary source, relying on the 1875 vocal score to determine what the singers actually sang, but not necessarily the ordering of the numbers. The dialogue takes account both of the first edition libretto and of the indication at the Opera Comique. Whereas Didon places the autograph score quite high in his hierarchy, Langham Smith does not, preferring instead to rely on the score at the Opera Comique. Langham Smith's intentions being to establish a version which establishes the work as performed at the Opera Comique some time after its premiere, after it had had time to mature, but before 1890.

The results can only be in performance, and it will be interesting to see what effect these scores have on productions of Carmen from henceforth.

English National Opera's new production of Carmen directed by Calixto Bieuto, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth with Ruxandra Donose in the title role opened at the London Coliseum on Wednesday 21 November and performances continue till Sunday 9 December.

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