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Now on to two fictional women: Carmen and Norma. Bizet’s legendary creation arrives in the form of Herbert von Karajan’s infamous production of Carmen created for Salzburg in 1966 and recorded here at its revival the following year; he both directed the staging and conducted, receiving little critical acclaim at the time. Has time been kind? Not hugely, I fear. There is a lot of stage noise, effortful dialogue, and sometimes singers sound a long way away; one of the more successful moments is the Act II Quintet, where presumably the singers were grouped. Karajan’s conducting is detailed and the playing has glamour and sheen, but there is the annoying interpolation of ballet music from La jolie fille de Perth and L’Arlesienne, which sounds more as though the Widow Simone had wandered on from another Fille – mal gardée – in her clogs. Grace Bumbry, surely one of the great divas, glamorous of both voice and person, sounds curiously subdued here, almost as though she is slightly bored. John Vickers provides plenty of character and an exquisitely molded aria, but sounds deranged from his first utterance. Justino Diaz is a bull in china shop as Escamillo. All of which leaves the deliciously fresh-voiced Mirella Freni to walk offwith the show as Micaëla.

Norma, in a new 2017 production from the Met by David MCVICAR, will please traditionalists. These Druids are already living the life: blow-dries and hair volumising products; smokey eyes, presumably a hazard of no chimneys (and, as I write, big at New York Fashion Week); fabulously dyed silk frocks. Who needs pesky Romans with their under- floor heating – it’ll never catch on. Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato as Norma and Adalgisa both get offto rather challenged starts, but once the sparks start flying they ramp up some dramatic tension and their voices blend pleasingly. And at least Joseph Calleja proves worth scrapping over, more than he did as his Covent Garden Pollione. Carlo Rizzi is a stylish conductor, the chorus excellent. Good for some diva-worship, but otherwise it is all a bit tame: press the snooze button. I suspect you had to be there.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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